I am a Texan, but my family also spent time living in Alabama. First we lived in Decatur (up North, about 20 minutes from Huntsville), then in Demopolis (West-Central, 45 minutes due South of Tuscaloosa – less than half an hour the way I drive!). I’ll never forget November 15, 1989. The weather had been horrible all day long. Storming, pouring rain, blowing wind like hell – all of it. My brother, sister and I got home from school; dad was let out of work early and mom needed a few things for supper. I went with dad to the store. It was as we pulled into the store parking lot that the hail started.
It was the size of baseballs at its smallest. It scared the hell out of me; I’d been through small tornadoes before and knew that big hail meant a big, bad storm and a near guarantee of a tornado. We were in the middle of the store when the wind picked up to the point that the rain and hail made it impossible to see out the windows at all and the tornado sirens turned on. Store power flickered, then went out. People inside were crying and running for the back of the store. Dad and I waited until the whiteout ended and the sirens turned off – then sped like demons toward our home on 8th St SW, not far away. I have since seen that house on Google Earth, and it doesn’t look much different now than it did then.
The house was okay, although mom’s brand-new Chevy Corsica was covered in gigantic dents from the hail and my brother, sister, and all sixteen pets (I do not exaggerate that number – two of them were blue-fronted Amazon parrots) were under mattresses and blankets in the hallway. Power stayed out for a little while, but inside ten minutes we were able to turn on the news.
Gary Dobbs, meteorologist for Eyewitness 31 News, came on – and this is the very first thing I saw:
Click through the link and you’ll be able to see the rest of the documentary in pieces.
What’s more is that the twister didn’t really “hit” Decatur. It mostly just skipped on and off the ground, picked up, went over the river as a funnel cloud, then touched down, grew to be nearly a mile wide and wiped out the entire Southeast section of Huntsville.
Tornado weather is something I have feared since childhood. I was so terrified of it that I studied it constantly. I could still explain the physics surrounding the formation of supercell thunderstorms and tornadic conditions as if it were second nature. I could sit with you underneath a building storm and show you what is going on as it happens. Early in the day you’ll see cumulus clouds; they’ll turn into cumulonimbus clouds and go from gray to very dark gray fairly rapidly. From a distance you’d be able to see the anvil-shaped top of the storm as updrafts build the storm column. What’s happening is a battle of warm, moist air and cool, dry air. If you’re underneath the storm, you’ll start to see a wall cloud form just before the rain starts. Sometimes you’ll see mammatus clouds form on the underside and around the wall cloud formation. Both of these are indicative of a pending tornado. Often, the sky will take on a sickening greenish-gray tint (if it isn’t black).
Most people never see a tornado coming. Most of you are likely used to the dramatic footage you’ve seen on TV and in movies that shows tornadoes without rain obscuring them, blowing up transformers and ripping up the landscape, debris clearly seen in the foreground. That’s not usually how it works. It usually starts with rain and large hail, then a sound like a roll of thunder that just doesn’t stop. It gets louder and louder until it sounds like a freight train. In the Deep South, the old Cold War air-raid sirens are now used as tornado sirens. I always knew that if I heard thunder that lasted more than about ten seconds, I needed to get to the hallway or an interior bathroom – and as a kid with OCD, I had a plan mapped out in every single house we lived in.
To this day, thunderstorms are my singular fear. I remember the 1989 tornado and the aftermath almost as if it were yesterday. I still remember the heavy, oppressive humidity leading up to the storm, the sudden violent cold after the storm and its associated cold front passed, and the smell…it was a mixture of newly-snapped timbers and crushed vegetation. It was almost pleasant except that I will forever associate it with the aftermath of a tornado that killed 21 people.
My heart, mind and prayers are with those who were hit by tornadoes just a couple of days ago. When I lived in Demopolis, AL, we went up North to Tuscaloosa when we wanted something to do that didn’t involve hanging out at Wal-Mart; many of the neighborhoods we used to haunt were blown away this week. I watched on the news as sections of that town that I recognized – University Mall, the old fire training academy, apartments near the University of Alabama – were battered by an F4 twister that killed at least twenty people so far. The total death toll topped 340 today, making the April 27 outbreak the worst since 1933.