When you have been in the forecasting business as long as I have, you see many extreme weather events. Most of them are watched from a distance, but I have experienced three blizzards and many severe storm and tornado events. However, last April was the most intense situation I have ever been personally involved with.
When I was a young pup of a meteorologist fresh out of the university back in 1974, I worked at a private weather service in Chicago. On April 3, 1974, my boss, who had over 30 years of experience, said it was going to be a bad day.
That was an understatement.
One hundred and forty-eight tornadoes touched down in a little over 24 hours, and 330 people were killed. The worst damage around here was in Resaca, Georgia. A trailer park was hit and nine people were killed.
Back then, we did not have the technology to give our viewers a decent warning. If you received a five minute heads up, that was considered good! I never thought I would see another day like that. But I was wrong.
On Monday, April 25, when I came into the station and started looking at the weather charts and computer models, I had deja vu of 1974.
By Tuesday, I had no doubt in my mind that we were in for a very severe event that could be historic. As Wednesday approached, it looked worse with every new model run.
On Wednesday morning, to be honest, I did not expect the morning outbreak of tornadoes. I was mainly worried about the afternoon and evening. To have a number of tornadoes in this area during the morning is extremely rare.
David Karnes and Nick Austin covered the outbreak in the morning flawlessly. When I came into work around 10:15 a.m., I still had no idea that a tornado had struck just a mile from my house.
When I looked at the VIPIR, I saw that the storms that had struck here were already passed Knoxville and were approaching Bristol, Tennessee. All the storms moving that day were clipping along at around 60 mph from the southwest to the northeast – that is a mile a minute! Then I looked west and saw the lines of storms through Mississippi and Alabama forming. That was the armada that I had been dreading.
I went to the green wall for storm coverage, Nick manned the radar and David watched the feed from the National Weather Service while updating our website and Facebook and Twitter accounts. I had no idea that we would be on pretty much non-stop for about 12 hours. Before this storm, it had never been necessary for me to go on for more than an hour and a half.
Wave after wave of storms moved through the area throughout the afternoon and evening. In this type of situation, you have to be focused on the next storm. I really did not have time to talk about any one storm after it had dissipated or left the area because there was always another one on its way.
About an hour or so after the Ringgold/Apison/South Bradley County tornado, we received a phone video of the actual tornado. I was shocked at the size of this monster. It was on par with an Oklahoma tornado! I got a bit choked up, because I knew people were hurt badly and many had probably been killed by a storm of this size. But there were more storms on the way.
The radar depictions of the tornadoes were textbook. Almost each one had a distinct hook-shape echo. This indicates the rain winding around the funnel cloud. With the Doppler radar and our VIPIR, we can show the wind speed of the funnel, and it was well over 100 mph in many cases. This is very rare for our area.
I felt like I was a radar observer watching waves of bombers flying over, and I was powerless to stop it. But there was something I could do. I have given many talks about tornado safety, and on that day, the speeches I've made at schools and service clubs were repeated over and over again. I mentioned to our audience when things were starting to wind down, that in the morning they were going to see damage more extensive than they have never seen around here. Unfortunately I was correct.
A few days later I received a phone call from a viewer in Apison thanking me for saving his family. I told him that I did not save his family. He did. He had a plan before the tornado ever approached. That plan was for moving his family into the center of their house and into a closet that had a very heavy gun safe. The key to safety above ground is go put as many walls between you and the tornado. The smaller the room the stronger the room! If he did not have a plan it would it would not have made any difference what warnings I was able to provide. And that is the most important thing to take away from this tragic event: Everyone needs to have a plan.
This type of situation will probably not occur again. But that's what I thought in 1974!