The “Super Outbreak” of April 27th, 2011

Every generation has it’s watershed moment.

Ask any astronomy or space travel fan, and they can cite you down to the second what happened during the Challenger tragedy in 1986 – doubly so, many Americans can recall their entire September 11th, 2001 – and just about any weather nerd, hobbyist or professional, can recall their Wednesday, April 27th, 2011, now referred to as the day of the most recent “Super Outbreak”.

The title of “Super Outbreak” is a reverent one, but it’s not without precedent. One early example of what’s now considered one such outbreak can be seen in the events of March 21st, 1932, which also took place in the Southeastern United States. Throughout the day, dozens of tornadoes touched down in Alabama, Georgia, and Tennessee, of which at least 10 were violent (F4+). The exact numbers are, unsurprisingly, hard to verify – it being nearly 100 years ago does no favors when considering the lack of population density, as well as the lack of contemporary, comprehensive archiving of tornado events. Even so, a well-educated guess can easily extrapolate out that this outbreak met the criteria based just on it’s impacts alone – at least 330 lost their lives, and cities like Tuscaloosa, Northport, Cullman, and even as far north as Pulaski in Giles County, Tennessee suffered extensive damage inflicted by violent tornadoes.

Moreover, before 2011, there was at least one other such outbreak in living memory that set the precedent – that of April 3-4, 1974. Thanks to improvements in weather observation technology over the preceding decades, as well as the introduction of more comprehensive archiving and rating methods, the true numbers from outbreaks like this became clearer, though still imperfect – in this 24 hour outbreak, some 148 tornadoes were confirmed, with the possibility existing that, even still, some weaker vortexes went overlooked. Much like the aforementioned outbreak in 1932, more than 300 people were killed across a truly gargantuan swath of territory – deadly tornadoes occurred as far north as Michigan, and as far south as Central Alabama, of which some 30 were F4+ (and 7 were F5, 3 of which alone occurred in Northern Alabama).

This day being in living memory to many of our parents and grandparents serves as a sort of living proof that weather can galvanize itself as something of a generational trauma to those unfortunate enough to live through these events – which to us can be a bit of an abstraction until we see it for ourselves, and we certainly did in 2011.

As a whole, 2011 kicked off with a fairly active pattern – one doesn’t need to look any further than April 15th and 16th of that year to see what was, in it’s own right, something of a historic Dixie and Carolina Alley tornado outbreak, featuring an impressive 123 tornadoes across the two days as a part of a broader, more active jet stream pattern. By April 23rd, just a week after that outbreak, the Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Oklahoma had highlighted severe weather probabilities for broad swaths of the Central and Southeastern portions of the United States for the dates of April 26th and April 27th.

By Tuesday the 26th, (in SPC lingo, now “Day 1”), the first level 5 out of 5 HIGH RISK of this system was issued, extending from the Eastern DFW Metro to Memphis, alongside a truly massive standard SLIGHT RISK from Massachusetts to the Texas Panhandle. In it’s own right, it too was an impressive outbreak – from the morning of the 26th to the morning of the 27th, the timeframe used by the SPC for verification, some 126 tornado reports flowed through the pipeline – fortunately, most of the cellular-type tornadoes through the day of the 26th were mostly relegated to EF0, EF1, and sometimes EF2 strength – in terms of the 26th as a calendar day, 55 tornadoes touched down, with no fatalities reported.

Later on that night and into the early AM of the 27th, however, things began to escalate – many of the storms from the day congealed into a line of storms, producing several EF2s and EF3s from MS to AL – setting the stage in many ways for later in the day.

In following the trend of 2011 up to then, this QLCS, or Quasi-Linear Convective System, would have been a major weather event in it’s own right – in Central MS and AL, several people lost their lives from EF2 and EF3 tornadoes (which themselves were relatively long-tracked on their own), and hundreds of thousands of residents of both states, lost power, which would in some cases takes days to weeks to repair – needless to say, it doesn’t take a weather geek to see how dire the situation is for these residents considering the day to come.

On the north end of this line of storms in the Tennessee Valley, especially as it continued to progress eastwards through the morning, an incredible MCV, or Mesoscale Convective Vortex, was swirling almost like an inland hurricane, spawning more than a dozen tornadoes embedded throughout it’s broader circulation – many of which would be on the ground at the same time. Most of these would turn out to be EF1s (one of which took 1 life), but several EF2s also spawned with this portion of the line.

As it moved eastward, the worst of the weather – for now – was concluding for MS and AL.

Besides a sporadic elevated severe storm or two popping up in subsequent hours, the weather cooperated enough for the NWS teams across the region to begin to consolidate information – powerlines were down across several counties, homes were destroyed in the strongest tornadoes of the morning, and at least 3 people had already lost their lives – and this was only “Round 1”.

It would be only a couple hours before round 2.

Much like the first round of storms, this so-called “Round 2” manifested in an intense QLCS that pushed eastward at speeds of over 50mph, but was mostly relegated to the Tennessee Valley region, and didn’t feature a Mesoscale Convective Vortex. Even still, however, this line would produce 7 tornadoes – again mostly EF-0 and EF-1, but still certainly salt being rubbed in the proverbial wound that was the already substantial damage to infrastructure across the area. Data collected by UAHs ARMOR radar showed debris balls on these spin-up tornadoes – in fact it was this radar that would provide all the dual-pol data that day, as NEXRADs were not yet upgraded to this configuration – and it would be this radar in just another hour or two that would capture one of the first of many violent supercells of the day. Let’s discuss a select few of them.

One of the first violent tornadoes to touch down that day to touch down was what’s now known as the Cullman Tornado – an EF-4 that trekked 47 miles across N AL. Among the first people to get eyes on the newly formed tornado was James Spann and Jason Simpson at 33/40, keeping a close eye on their nearby camera systems. As this tornado moved into Downtown Cullman, it morphed and contorted into a “Dead man walking” – that is, a multi-vortex tornado (something we’ll see more of later). Up until downtown, damage was mostly relegated to EF0 and EF1 type damage – but as it moved into the dense neighborhoods and commercial district of Cullman, it began inflicting EF3 and EF4 damage in a widespread fashion. In downtown, the old channel 53 low-power TV transmitter was toppled and thrown – the block around the old Fuller brothers building and First Methodist was leveled, and the city itself suffered $30 million in damage. Miraculously despite a direct city impact, “only” 1 person lost their life nearby (which, still, is 1 too many).

Further northeast, it wedged out – bloating to half a mile wide and inflicting widespread EF4 damage as it moved past the communities of Union Grove, Hulaco and Arab. In the vicinity of these communities, 5 more people would sadly lose their lives, and the tornado would finally lift just south of New Hope.

Around the same time that the Cullman supercell was maturing and producing it’s tornadic activity, a similarly (if not more) violent supercell was beginning to produce a tornado near the community of Philadelphia. Interestingly, this was the shortest-lived violent tornado of the day, but was among the strongest – it was the first tornado of the day to be rated EF-5 (winds in excess of 205mph) and the first F5 rated tornado in Mississippi since 1966, and some of the damage seen gives good insight as to why. Near North Bend, the tornado dug trenches into the ground more than 2 feet deep – new vehicles were thrown or rolled many hundreds of yards (a quarter mile or more) and left completely unrecognizable short of a vague metal frame, and 3 people lost their lives as a mobile home was also thrown many hundreds of yards from it’s foundation point before finally lifting just short of Macon, MS.

With multiple violent supercells at this point (~3-4pm) taking root and ongoing across MS and AL, it began to get chaotic – and it was around this time that the strongest tornado of the day would touch down in NW AL. Miles of forested land were completely toppled and stripped through portions of Marion County, which was fortunately mostly rural, at least until you crossed the county line and came into Hackleburg, just as the tornado did; in town, poured concrete was stripped from the ground, and trees were debarked and thrown – ~75% of the town was completely destroyed, and 18 people lost their lives in town, including some at the nearby Wrangler Jeans factory (some of which were found downstream dozens of miles away, having been lifted into the parent cyclone). Just miles away, the same thing happened minutes later in Phil Campbell, where several homes were completely destroyed, some of which had their brick foundations demolished. In this area, large strips of pavement off the road were scoured from the ground, and 27 people would lose their lives in and around Phil Campbell. The tornado continued for dozens of miles through Lawrence County in AL (where it destroyed the home of and injured friend of the TN Valley Weather, Gary Dobbs), taking 14 lives there, and 13 lives in Limestone County further NE, where it also destroyed a weather radar, finally impacting Harvest/Anderson Hills and weakening in Northern Madison County. When all was said and done, the tornado had claimed an unbelievable 72 lives, accounting for some 29% of all fatalities that day in Alabama.

Perhaps the most notable tornado of the day occurred in the late afternoon, and is best known as the Tuscaloosa tornado. The tornado itself touched down in relatively rural portions of W AL, but moved right into Tuscaloosa, and is considered by many to have been host to the “finest hour” in Meteorology. James Spann and Jason Simpson’s coverage of this tornado undoubtedly saved hundreds or more lives as it moved through town, destroying thousands of structures at high-end EF4 strength (winds nearing 200mph). In the city, homes were swept from their foundation; manhole covers were lifted and thrown some distance. In Northeastern Tuscaloosa, an apartment complex was completely destroyed leaving only granulated debris. In Tuscaloosa proper, 44 people would tragically lose their lives.

NE of Tuscaloosa it mostly impacted forestry-logging road sectors, toppling thousands of trees in-between Tuscaloosa and the Birmingham metro, where it was heading next. First to see extreme damage in the area was the community of Concord, where dozens of homes were destroyed at EF4 intensity. Hundreds more homes were destroyed minutes later in nearby Pleasant Grove; our own Fred Gossage was atop Red Mountain that day working with WBRC channel 6 and witnessed this stage of the tornado himself; debris such as twigs, check stubs, and wooden boards were falling out of the sky from the damage in Tuscaloosa at this time across the metro, even miles away from the tornado circulation. In this later stage of it’s like, 20 people lost their lives, leaving 64 dead in it’s wake.

Keep in mind that these were just a select handful of major tornadoes that many of us may remember – there were countless more, including EF5s in Rainsville, AL and Smithville, MS, and dozens and dozens more across AL, GA, TN+. In Alabama alone, the death toll stood at an incomprehensible 252. Economic losses totaled $10 billion dollars.

The day certainly earned it’s title of “Super Outbreak”. In total, tornado path lengths exceeded an incredible 3,000 miles in total, more than that of even the 1974 Super Outbreak. In the present day 13 years on, the impact can still be seen – many forested areas have been permanently altered and are clearly barren even today – and felt. Ask any resident of this area, and they can tell you what they were doing that they, and in the days afterwards, when power took days and days to restore.

Even today, a common question we get during severe weather is “will it be like April 27th?”. This comment alone is enough to justify doing what we do – trying to prevent another one of these from happening again. 13 years on, I’d say we’ve managed.

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