April 27th: The unforgotten tragedy

April 27th: The unforgotten tragedy
Alabamians who lived in the state at the time. All you have to say is a date: April 27. No year needed—no more context. The month and day alone sending people back to widespread damage, now 10 years ago. (Source: WSFA 12 News)

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (WSFA) - Devastating. Historic. Generational; for one of the largest super-tornado outbreaks in Central Alabama history, this day has been described in as many similar words as are available.

Alabamians who lived in the state at the time, all you have to say is a date: April 27. No year needed—no more context. The month and day alone sending people back to widespread damage, now 10 years ago.

While April 27 is known in Alabama for the 253 people killed over 18 hours, where 62 confirmed tornadoes ripped across the state, it all started days before. April 25th-28th was one of the largest super-tornado outbreaks in U.S. history. 362 tornadoes, impacting more than a dozen states from Texas to New York, Alabama being hit the hardest.

The total damage over those days climbed to roughly $12 billion. An estimate from the University of Alabama Huntsville suggests $4 billion was done in Alabama alone.

An economic impact study from the University of Alabama Center for Business and Economic Research shows nearly 14,000 homes were either destroyed or declared uninhabitable.

An image of the devastation left behind in Tuscaloosa as an EF-4 tornado hit the city on April 27, 2011
An image of the devastation left behind in Tuscaloosa as an EF-4 tornado hit the city on April 27, 2011 (Source: WSFA 12 News via NWS)

“We were looking at the forecast many days in advance,” says Chris Darden, Meteorologist-in-Charge for the National Weather Service in Birmingham. “It was probably that. I’d say that Sunday-Monday period, where we started, saying, ‘Okay, this, this could be a not just a significant weather event, this could be a high impact, once every five-to-10-year type event.’ Obviously, I don’t think really any of us thought it was gonna be sort of a generational outbreak.”

It’s a day that has impacted how some people think of time. When trying to think of something that happened in their lives, it’s no longer trying to remember a year. They try to remember if it was before or after April 27, 2011.

The outbreak in Alabama can be divided into two waves. The first 29 tornadoes recorded hit between 4 a.m. and 8 a.m. Most of these were in north Alabama, with some reaching western counties, like Sumter, Pickens, and Tuscaloosa counties. The second wave started at 11:15 a.m., bringing the majority of the tornadoes from the day and all tornadoes reaching EF-4 or EF-5 strength.

Of the day, the most powerful tornado in Alabama was an EF-5, reaching peak winds of 210 mph, destroying cities like Hackleburg and Phil Campbell. There would still be two dozen more tornadoes to hit the state that afternoon and night.

Pam Russell was in her home as a tornado hit. Her husband, daughter, and son-in-law, each further away than the last, work to get back to the family’s matriarch.
Pam Russell was in her home as a tornado hit. Her husband, daughter, and son-in-law, each further away than the last, work to get back to the family’s matriarch. (Source: WSFA 12 News)

The single deadliest tornado was the one that started in Greene County, tearing through cities like Tuscaloosa and Pleasant Grove.

“It was as if the hand of God had slammed down on the middle of our city,” says Tuscaloosa mayor Walt Maddox. “You looked around at this barren landscape of destruction, and it just shook you to your soul.”

Sixty-five people were killed, just over a quarter of all lives lost in the state. Then-governor Dr. Robert Bentley remembered the wave of destruction reported to him as more storms formed.

“They would call me, and they would say ‘governor one has hit in Cullman’ or ‘one has hit in Hackleburg and Phil Campbell’ or ‘one has hit in Rainsville.’ I mean, it was just one after another after another, and I said, ‘Lord, when is this day going to stop?’” Bentley said.

Families were forever changed in the storm. For hundreds, that change came in the form of life without loved ones.

Ashley Mims lived in Elmore County when the storms hit, as her daughter, Loryn, was in Tuscaloosa. Ashley was on the phone with Loryn, watching helplessly two hours away as the storm moved through Tuscaloosa.

“And then the phone cut off,” Ashley says. “I knew in that instant. I just knew a mother just knows. I ran out the front of front my front door, and I said, ‘God, please don’t take her,’ and I fell on my knees, and I knew that it was over.”

Many more across Alabama would find themselves near death, crouched in their safe place as the violent storm moved on.

In Pleasant Grove, hit by the same tornado that destroyed parts of Tuscaloosa, Pam Russell was home alone, having been without power until moments before the storm hit. Living next to acres of woods, she ran for the basement when her home started to be torn apart around her.

“When I turned the corner and tried to go down the steps, open the door to go down the steps to the basement, It was just seconds that it just ‘boom’ happened,” she says. “The door had already, it was already off its hinges a little, just smashed and just shaking. I couldn’t get that door open for anything. Then just standing back and looking around at everything around me, it was like a dream, and this isn’t real.”

People in southern Alabama watched in awe as the storms destroyed communities.

In Elmore County, the Padgett family was staying weather-aware. All three family members were in their home when a tornado warning for their area was called. Donna and Joel watched as debris flew closer to their home. They were able to get their son, Andrew, into their safe room just a minute or so before the storm hit their home. The patriarch, Joel, found himself pulling against the pressure of the storm to keep their closet door closed.

“My job was, as we were sitting in there, I was trying to keep the door closed,” he says. “I was focused on what was at hand, which was just trying to keep that door closed during that short period of time,” Joel added.

Picking up the pieces at Myers Country Acres after the April 27, 2011 tornado outbreak claimed four lives in the park.
Picking up the pieces at Myers Country Acres after the April 27, 2011 tornado outbreak claimed four lives in the park. (Source: WSFA 12 News)

While the Russells and Padgetts were spared, elsewhere in Elmore County, tragedy struck. Seven people died in the same storm hitting the Padgetts in Dadeville. Four of these losses were at Myers Country Acres, a mobile home park in Eclectic. The owner of the park, Nancy Myers, rode out the storm in a closet with her husband. When she stepped out, the quiet was deafening.

“The silence in the darkness after a tornado is just so different and unusual,” says Myers. “There’s total darkness and total silence because no motors are running, no air conditioners are running, there’s nothing running to make noise,” she said. “I could hear people in the park hollering ‘help me.’ You could hear the voices of them calling for help, but you couldn’t see anybody.”

10 years after the storm, scars can still be seen in parts of the state. Some injured in those storms will quite literally carry those scars for the rest of their lives. Those who lost loved ones there will bear that burden with no physical signs. Their southern hospitality is still shown through smiles and pleasantries, while a part of themselves remains missing.

“It’s like you carry this heavy weight,” says Mims, who lost her daughter. “It’s tied to your body, and you’re dragging this heavy weight. But as the time goes on, and as the years go on, you build up these muscles that you didn’t know you had so that you can carry this weight.”

“I find no room for celebration of April 27th in any sense,” says Maddox—a native of the city and mayor when the storms moved through.

The sentiment, felt by many. This day is not one for celebration. It is a time for remembrance. Remember the lives lost, neighborhoods that will never look the same, personal treasures lost to the wind.

But families who survived the storm must also not forget how close they came from being without a loved one, the bonds built. They also must not forget those who came from across the neighborhood, the county, the state, the country to help.

April 27 is not a day to celebrate but a date to reflect on this unforgettable tragedy.

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