Deadly tornado outbreak: April 25-28, 2011
Friday, April 25, 2014, 7:43 PM -
April 25-28, 2011: It was one of the largest and deadliest tornado outbreaks ever recorded, impacting a large part of the U.S. from the Southern Plains to the Northeast. In total, 358 tornadoes were confirmed by the U.S. National Weather Service and Environment Canada in 21 states from Texas to New York to southern Ontario, Canada. Four of the tornadoes were rated as an EF5, the highest ranking on the Enhanced Fujita Scale. Widespread destruction was left in its wake and the outbreak resulted in 348 fatalities.
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These catastrophic three days will likely haunt the minds of many for years to come, including The Weather Network's Dr. Doug Gillham who recalls the terror and heartbreak. We sat down with Dr. Gillham for a first hand account of the days leading up to the outbreak and the devastation to follow.
TWN: Describe the forecast leading up to the outbreak (what were the models showing? Did it look as bad on radar as it turned out to be?)
Six to seven days prior to the severe weather outbreak it was evident that a major severe weather event was going to occur across the southern US. Many local meteorologists began to discuss this threat on television and via online blogs six days in advance. Subsequent model updates during the days ahead allowed meteorologists to fine tune their forecast, but overall this was one of most well forecast severe weather events. Unfortunately, the severe weather event was as bad as feared. On April 27 the radar was very ominous to watch as each storm that developed over Mississippi and Alabama quickly developed very strong rotation.
TWN: When studying the weather models, did anything stand out at you?
The models consistently showed close to the worst case scenario with regard to all of the ingredients coming together to create a widespread and violent severe weather outbreak. Several of the variables that meteorologists evaluate in forecasting severe weather truly were off the chart.
TWN: Did you know it was going to be an outbreak -- or did you just think one, maybe two tornadoes were possible, at the most?
Yes, we were highly confident that a major outbreak was going to occur with numerous violent and long tracked tornadoes.
TWN: What was so unique about the weather that day that it would create such an outbreak?
All of the ingredients necessary for tornado development were present in great abundance over a very large region. There was a tremendous amount of uplift and instability in the atmosphere as well as exceptional amounts of wind shear, which is the change in wind speed and direction as you go up in the atmosphere. The veering winds as you go up in the atmosphere are the key to causing storms to rotate with the potential to produce a tornado.
TWN: How did you prepare?
Personally, I packed our safe, wedding album and a few other valuables in the trunk of our car as I knew that there was a threat that we would have to evacuate our home. Very few homes in the southern States have basements and tornadoes with the strength that we were expecting that day will completely scour a house from its foundation - meaning that there is no safe place to be within your home. I urged numerous friends to have a plan to get to a place where they could get underground if a tornado warning was issued. Most schools dismissed several hours early and meteorologists used traditional media outlets and social media to spread the word about the impending dangerous weather.
TWN: What was it like after the outbreak? Were people on edge, still worried that more tornadoes were coming?
In Starkville, where I was located, we were very thankful that we were spared any serious damage, but concern and even shock quickly set in as we became increasingly aware of the magnitude of the devastation in so many communities all around us. Friends and family of several of my students were highly impacted. It was quite eerie after the storm as there was no power in the region. The primary transmission lines into the region were taken out by one of the tornadoes, so it was very quiet and dark at night and it was very difficult to communicate with family and friends and to find out what was going on elsewhere.
TWN: Are these types of outbreaks "rare" for that area?
Severe weather is somewhat common in the regions that were hardest hit, but this truly was an exceptional outbreak. April 3-4, 1974 and April 25-28, 2011 were the worst outbreaks on record for the United States.
TWN: How did the outbreak impact Ontario?
Damaging winds occurred across much of southern Ontario from Windsor to Ottawa with gusts of 100 to 120 km/h. A gust of 124 km/h was officially recorded in Niagara Falls, NY and gusts were likely close to that level in parts of the Niagara Peninsula. There were numerous downed trees and over 175,000 were without power in Ontario. The Burlington Skyway was closed and one death was blamed on the winds.
TWN: Any additional comments you'd like to add?
When I was finally able to get in contact with my parents in Vineland, Ontario, I was surprised to learn that they had actually experienced more damage (roof and trees) than I had directly experienced in Mississippi. However, what I saw during the days and weeks after the storm will stay with me for the rest of my life - scenes of total destruction from numerous communities across the Southern US. Despite being one of the most well forecast severe weather events with considerable advanced notice for each tornado warning, 348 people died during the outbreak. Considerable research has been conducted over the past three years in an effort to determine what needs to be done differently to reduce the death toll the next time we have a major severe weather outbreak.
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