Tornado alley is a real thing in Alabama. No area of the state is immune to the mostly seasonal clash of air masses that when combined with extreme upper-level shear winds, results in long track tornados. Most of the tornados that hit in Alabama occur in a band north of the I-59 corridor and travel southwest to northeast. Those of us who live in the southern suburbs of Birmingham, south of this line, are rarely impacted, as they often hit north of south of us. Many even speculate that this is the main reason the Birmingham Metropolitan area has been growing in a southern direction rather than north. Spring is when these storms are most common, with the fall being second place, but tornados have happened in almost every month here. It is so common it is an accepted part of our culture and lifestyle, as normal as our mild winters and hot steamy summers. The frequency of these events vary year to year, but this spring has been exceptionally active, after several years of relative calm.
My family and friends have over the years, escaped any direct impact from these storms. Sadly, it seems the poorer you are the more likely you will suffer damage. Mobile home parks seem to attract these storms like magnets. While everyone’s chances of being hit by these compact twisters are pretty small, we have learned to pay attention, even though, most of these storm track well north of us. This year was different.
The local TV weather programs had been warning us for a week that severe weather with the potential for long track tornados was headed this way. The day of this storm, March 25, started with most of the viewing area under a “tornado watch”, meaning conditions are favorable for tornados. We were in risk category four out of five, which pretty much guaranteed that several tornados would occur. Everyone is told to have an emergency plan, and a “safe place” predetermined so that if you are warned that you are you are “in the polygon”, a specific geographic area designated by the National weather service as being under a “Tornado Warning”, you did not have to think about it. Just go! Be sure to bring your bike helmets, or even a pot or pillows to protect your head, we are told. Stay away from windows. We used to have to rely on the old 1960’s air raid sirens, but now our smart phones give us multiple and location specific alerts. Progress!
Once a tornado warning has been issued, the local TV weather anchors interrupt whatever is on air and stay on as long as the warning is active in their viewing area. The weather team, which often includes several certified meteorologists, projects the path of the storm and calls out the names of the communities and neighborhoods where the storm might go, ahead of the actual warning area. This provides the maximum warning possible to those watching.
One 50-mile long-track storm started out about thirty-five miles away, in Bibb county, with a tornado warning, and an obvious progression north east, in our general direction. The storm could move north or south, so we at first, we feared it might hit our neighborhood. It was obvious this storm would pass south of 1-59 into southern Jefferson and northern Shelby counties. Two of my four siblings, as well as I, live in this part of southern metro area known as “over the mountain” and includes many of the city’s largest suburban neighborhoods, covering the southern half of Jefferson County and the northern quarter of Shelby County. I live in Jefferson County on the south side of Shades Mountain overlooking the Cahaba River valley, while my oldest brother lives in Shelby County on the north side of Double Oak Mountain, across the same valley from us, but further east than my location. Another of my older brothers lives just south of us. All three of us were originally projected to potentially be in the path of this storm, so my wife and I went downstairs to our finished basement, our safe place and watched the storm progress on TV. As the storm approached the Cahaba Valley, and the sky got darker overhead, we lost our satellite TV feed, so we navigated to our local TV live web broadcasts on my laptop. Turns out, as the storm moved northeast, the actual warning polygon was extended to an area south of us, but still included the homes of my two older siblings.
This storm was moving quickly, about 60 miles per hour, and before long we could see that the path of the storm moved just north of where brother number two lived, probably missing his home, but continued along the populous State Highway 119 corridor, which runs along the north side of Double Oak Mountain. We began to be concerned about my oldest brother and his family as we watched the weatherman call out his neighborhood as being in the path. We prayed they were in their safe place.
Once the storm had passed, I sent out texts to my brothers. My second oldest responded they were ok. My oldest brother did not respond, but shortly thereafter, we got a sad but stoic post from his wife on our family’s private Facebook page:
Thank God they were safe, but their house was irreparably damaged. Word came later, on the news that another long track tornado had taken five lives in a county further south. Other storms across the state produced more damage, with many injuries, but luckily but no other fatalities. For this we can thank our well-developed multiple warning systems and our local TV stations.
They lost the roof for the main part and the once beautiful landscape around the house, but a most of the house was still standing. Others lost everything. The house across the street was completely leveled.
It was surreal to walk through the house after the storm. The roof of the foyer gone, open to the sky while in the adjacent dining room, years of fragile collectables remained untouched, standing on glass shelving. The kitchen, keeping room and garage, were untouched, (as was the second floor bedroom directly above), but the master bedroom and bath, totaled.
As is typical when these storms happen, throngs of volunteers arrive to help. An electrician showed up the next morning as they looked over the damage and was able to restore power to the basement and main floor of the house, which other than a lot of broken windows, was relatively undamaged. He did this service without charge. The second floor and a one-story portion of the main floor were roofless, but the kitchen and family room, soon cleaned up by my oldest nephew, became a gathering place for the many family friends who came to help. The insurance agent was great, as was their coverage, and my brother’s family was able to salvage many of their belongings, some irreplaceable from their many years as an Air Force family. Throngs of faith-based groups descended on the neighborhood to remove trees and debris to the street side, donate food, water and packing materials, and provide spiritual support as well. Even a cousin of ours came up from New Orleans to help, rallying a team of other faith based helpers. Today, my brother’s family are moving to a temporary residence, an empty house being provided for their use by a generous neighbor. We take care of our own, here in the South.
For those interested in the specifics, below is a summary of this particular storm, from the National Weather Service. A complete summary is here: https://www.weather.gov/bmx/event_03252021northshelby
This was a major setback for my 76-year-old brother and his family. It is hard to start over at any age, but even harder in retirement. However, with the help of neighbors and family, they will get through it. It could have been worse, and our prayers go out to all who lost even more, especially to those who lost family members. The lesson here, which cannot be said too many times, is to never ignore severe weather warnings. Sometimes they never materialize, and most of the time you will be spared, but nowhere and no one is immune. It only takes one.
As the TV weather mans says, “Be weather aware”!