The Phrase that Changed Alabama: Tornado Emergency April 27, 2011
April 27, 2011, was a day that changed Alabamians forever. No matter wherever life takes me, Alabama will always have a special place in my heart. The passion of the Yellowhammer State residents is what moves me. The days after the horrible tornado outbreak allowed the heart of Alabama to be shown to the rest of the world.
I have been in Alabama for a total of 16 years. In 2011, I was 957 JAMZ in Birmingham. Fourteen years was spent in Birmingham (living in Pelham & Helena) and now two years in Tuscaloosa at 92.9 WTUG.
The days leading up to April 27, 2011, were nerve-racking because I saw the potential for a major severe weather outbreak increasing day by day. There were many calls between my mentor and Cox Media Group Chief Meteorologist, J.B. Elliott, in preparation. I still can’t believe that J.B. Elliot was my mentor, who encouraged me to get my second degree in Meteorology. I’m still in awe that God placed me on the path to receive so much knowledge from him. He signed on the U.S. Weather Bureau in 1957 (now the National Weather Service in Birmingham). At the time, I don’t either of us knew that this would be J.B.’s second generational tornado outbreak that he would cover. His first one was April 3, 1974.
The morning of April 27, 2011, the last check of weather information at home brought me to tears. I figured it might be a good idea to pack a bag with clothes, toiletries, and food to cover about two days. Little did I know that this bag would come in handy.
On the way to the radio station, I stopped by my parents’ house in Pelham to give them the weather scoop and “marching orders,” as my Dad would say sarcastically. The master bedroom closet was their “safe room.” I had it set up with two chairs, pillows, snacks, water, portable battery-operated TV, flashlight, and air horn. Remember, both my parents were deaf, so I always worried about them in severe weather times. An air horn is great, so if something did happen, they could use that to be noticed. Since they couldn’t hear the radio, James Spann was their go-to man; they knew, when they saw James Spann, and he pointed to Pelham or Shelby County, they needed to be in their safe place.
I got to work, and it was full speed ahead. There were two rounds of severe weather that day. Both rounds were terrible, with so many tornadoes in all the various coverage areas. It was hard to keep track. While J.B. gave each tornadoes play by play, giving the next community the heads up to take cover. I was watching storms behind those tornadoes and fielding weather information from the public.
A listener sent me a picture of the Tuscaloosa Tornado. I was speechless; it was massive. Oddly, that picture was from an apartment complex that I live in now. I just figured that out a few months ago. Crazy, right?
I remember giving locations along the Tuscaloosa Tornado track, those in the studio, we prayed for the people of Tuscaloosa in the middle of our coverage. As we knew the devastation, this tornado was causing. You could see it on the radar. That tornado moved into the western part of Birmingham, not far from the radio station.
The building we were in forced us to leave the top floor and go to a safe place. Security came to get us because we weren’t leaving. We switched our coverage to James Spann and ABC 33/40. Maybe not the smartest thing I’ve ever done, but when the security folks weren’t looking, we went back upstairs to go back to our live coverage.
We got in the studio and froze. Out the window was the tornado. I still can’t believe that I saw an EF-4 tornado with my own eyes. It took my breath away.
As the tornado emergency was going through various areas, I called our staff to make sure they were ok. I got ahold of everyone except one person. I knew he wasn’t far from the University of Alabama; I feared he was in the path of the tornado. He was. I finally did get ahold of him.
Honestly, I really don’t remember how many hours and days we were at the radio station. It’s all a blur. Many days after, we spent focused on key areas of rescue, relief, and restoring our communities.
Even in the aftermath of the devastating tornado, Alabama communities were there for each other. In town, across county lines, various parts of Alabama, strangers helping each other, the list goes on and on of heroic acts of kindness.
The people of Alabama are the heartbeat of the state. This is one of the reasons why Alabama will always have a special place in my heart.