When reflecting upon April 27, 2011, I have to start a few days prior and layout the timeline before delving into any discussion of emotions and such. When I left my weekend shift Sunday night the computer forecast models certainly showed indications of a significant severe weather event. I even recall telling someone who called the station Sunday afternoon—either a viewer or one of our Sky Watchers—we'll definitely have several tornadoes Wednesday which could be strong. I had no idea that would wind up a gross understatement.
I had my usual Monday and Tuesday off, but kept a watch on the computer models and what was happening in the Plains. All things still pointed to a major event for the afternoon and evening in the Tennessee Valley.
Thinking I had a window of opportunity in the morning, I came back to work early Wednesday morning, April 27, to work on a completely unrelated story - since I report some weekdays in the field.
My plans changed quickly.
Out of nowhere, around 8:00 a.m., tornadoes began spinning up in northeast Alabama headed for northwest Georgia. Admittedly, this was unexpected so early in the day—major curveball. As quickly as the storms developed I got on the phone to postpone my other story because a more urgent one was developing.
David Karnes and I immediately broke into live coverage to track the tornadoes and inform the public. We stayed on air for a few hours until late morning, when a break in the development allowed us to rest for a while.
Around this time our Chief Meteorologist, Paul Barys, arrives. The morning storms caught him off guard too.
When we all saw what was popping up on the radar just west of the viewing area during the lull, we knew we were in for a long afternoon and probably night as well.
For the next several hours—I honestly don't remember how many—I manned the radar while Paul got on the "green screen" so we could track the storms effectively in tandem. Meanwhile, after already working his early morning shift, David updated warnings and other critical information on our social media pages—not an easy task since the warnings were being issued in rapid succession and damage reports came arrived in droves.
The final tornadoes left the viewing area late in the evening, around 10:30 p.m. I believe.
I had been through a marathon tornado outbreak while working at WBBJ in Jackson, Tennessee. Dozens of twisters touched down on February 5, 2008 across West Tennessee. But the historic outbreak in our region is something I only expected to see in my old neck of the woods, because the terrain is so much flatter and more wide open there and it's closer to Tornado Alley.
We all learned the hard way April 27 that the mountains don't protect us from violent storms. Also, the West Tennessee outbreak affected mostly rural areas and produced mostly weaker, short-track tornadoes—not the case last April. Tornadoes stayed on the ground for tens of miles and reached EF-4 strength with 190 mph winds, striking many residential neighborhoods.
This brings me to the moment on April 27 which sticks in my mind the most, when Paul tried to hold back tears while winding up our coverage. He had never seen anything like this after covering weather events at Channel 3 for two and a half decades.
As reporters of the weather we, like news reporters, aren't supposed to let our emotions get in the way of telling a story. But this was different. As we were telling this story people were dying and others' lives were being torn apart in mere moments, all while we were on the air. Showing no emotion at the end of it all would be robotic and unnatural, but we're all human.
We were in the studio and only could imagine the destruction based on what we saw on the radar. That changed for me the next day when I visited Apison, and in the weeks and months to follow as I reported stories from other affected areas.
I really only appreciated what happened once I saw the results of the storms and talked to those who were impacted—storm victims who lost homes, businesses, pets, and loved ones; first responders who dug through debris and rubble to rescue survivors; communities uniting to help those in need. The help, healing, and recovery still go on a year later. In a nutshell, the entire experience is something I'll never forget—I mean, who could? Hopefully it'll be a true once in a lifetime experience for all of us.