December 31, 2019

The April 27, 2011 Tornado Outbreak Shaped How We Viewed The Weather In The 2010s

This was the first decade that allowed us to track every weather event on social media in excruciating detail. We went into 2010 getting weather info from big companies, a few apps, and a handful of popular blogs. We're ending 2019 with more apps and Facebook and Twitter pages than any one person could ever hope to download or follow. The technological advances we've seen in the last ten years changed how we consume weather information, but the storms themselves—and one outbreak in particular—did just as much to shape how we approach future weather events.

April 27 was a seminal moment in meteorology. The peak of the generational tornado outbreak that unfolded that day shaped severe weather communication for every major outbreak since. Much of the day's legacy involves personal impacts and the emotional toll it took on people affected by the storms and the meteorologists who watched them unfold.

216 tornadoes touched down on April 27, 2011, setting the record for the most tornadoes ever recorded in a single day. National Weather Service meteorologists surveyed the damage left behind by dozens of major tornadoes, including 4 scale-topping EF-5s. More than 300 people died as a result of tornado-related injuries.

The tornado outbreak was a well-predicted event. Meteorologists sounded the alarm days in advance that an unusually potent tornado outbreak might take place that afternoon. Long-track tornadoes allowed meteorologists to give people hours of notice ahead of the storms. Just about every local television and radio station preempted programming to carry live coverage of the storms.

Despite the advanced warning and extensive live coverage of the storms, hundreds were killed and thousands more were injured in the day's tornadoes. The high death toll was a combination of infrastructure failures and the sheer strength and number of tornadoes.

A powerful squall line swept through Alabama early in the morning on April 27, causing widespread power outages across the state. Several weather radio transmission towers went offline during the power outages, leaving many Alabama residents with no electricity and no NOAA Weather Radio going into that afternoon's storms.

The raw power of the tornadoes also contributed to the immense death toll. Many homes in the path of the strongest tornadoes were scrubbed from their foundations. There's no amount of walls separating you from the outdoors that can save you when your entire house is simply swept away.

That single afternoon built a culture of weather awareness in the south. To this day, Alabama's most beloved living resident is probably James Spann. People who normally wouldn't care about the weather can decipher radar products without needing any help. The physical, emotional, and mental scars left behind by that day's tornado outbreak did more to instill weather awareness and storm education than just about any event before it.

That day's events also shaped how we cover the weather. That afternoon is the reason I write about the weather today. Every meteorologist and weather enthusiast who was around and paying attention uses that day as the benchmark for how to measure their coverage of potential tornado outbreaks.

Think back to Hurricane Sandy in 2012, the EF-5 tornado in Moore in 2013, blizzards, major flooding, Matthew, Harvey, Irma, Maria, Florence, Michael, Dorian...all the major weather events that came after April 27, 2011, were covered through a lens adjusted on that horrible day.

It strengthened the resolve to push back against hype-filled weather coverage. It taught millions of people to pay attention to the weather and take everything seriously. The closest that weather folks as a whole have come to ringing the alarm as loudly as April 27, 2011, was back on May 20, 2019, a day when the atmosphere appeared primed for an intense tornado outbreak in Oklahoma, but the storms ultimately had trouble forming.

We'll have historic disasters in the next ten years. It's likely that some of them will set new benchmarks for storms in the years that follow. Thankfully, technology today is better than it was back on April 27. Smartphones are more prevalent than ever and they're all equipped with wireless emergency alerts that receive tornado warnings instantly. Weather radar was upgraded with dual-polarization in the 2010s, giving us the ability to see tornado debris in a storm.

The next decade will see more advances in forecasting, detection, and alerting, progress that will help us stay ahead of storms even better than we can right now. People change. Tech changes. The weather is changing. It's up to all of us—meteorologists, reporters, the public—to learn the lessons of the past and apply them to whatever storms lie ahead.

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I graduated from the University of South Alabama in 2014 with a degree in political science and a minor in meteorology. I contribute to The Weather Network as a digital writer, and I've written for Forbes, the Washington Post's Capital Weather Gang, Popular Science, Mental Floss, and Gawker's The Vane. My latest book, The Skies Above, is now available. My first book, The Extreme Weather Survival Manual, arrived in October 2015.