Alabama Ranks First in Severe Tornadoes

By Kelly Kazek | June 27, 2011

The upgrade of one of the April 27 tornadoes to an EF5 ranking puts Alabama at No. 1 in the nation for the most severe tornadoes.

The tornado that hit Fyffe, Rainsville and Sylvania in DeKalb County at about 6 p.m. that day had previously been ranked an EF4, but a new ground survey conducted last week caused meteorologists to increase the ranking to EF5, said Chris Darden, chief meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Huntsville.

According to the Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Okla., the upgrade brings Alabama’s total of F5 and EF5 tornadoes to seven. Before the ranking change for the Rainsville tornado, Alabama was tied with six with Texas, Oklahoma, Iowa and Kansas, said Greg Carbin with the Storm Prediction Center.

The impact of the April 27 tornadoes will also change Alabama’s ranking in other disaster categories. Before the outbreak, the state ranked 13th — or 14th, depending on the source — in the number of tornadoes annually. However, Alabama was third in the number of tornado fatalities.

April 27 increased both categories. The Alabama EMA shows more than 240 fatalities, and the number of tornadoes to hit Alabama that day now stands at 61.

Darden said the change in the Rainsville tornado came after a survey he conducted June 15. The path was 33 miles long and about .75 miles wide. Peak winds were greater than 200 mph, Darden said. Making determinations seven weeks after the outbreak is challenging, he said, but he based his decision on what he saw, aerial photos, Google street views before the storms, reports from DeKalb EMA Deputy Director Christy Hardin and eyewitness accounts from survivors.

When survey crews were at the location in the days following the storms, the area was blocked because of power lines and trees in roads and the search for victims.

“Early on, you get to what you can get to,” Darden said. That’s why surveys are continuing in many areas.

Storms killed 33 people in DeKalb County on April 27, with 27 fatalities occurring in the path of the newly upgraded EF5.

Darden stressed that all reports are still considered preliminary because, due to the scope of the April 27 outbreak, researchers are continuing to track storm paths. The main centers compiling statistics are the NWS in Huntsville and in Birmingham. Those statistics will then be compiled as a single source on the outbreak in Alabama.

“We want to get it right, hopefully the first time, but at least in the end before it goes in the official record,” he said.

According to the report at the NWS Huntsville website, “the National Weather service focused primarily on a narrow corridor of intense damage extending from Skaggs Road to Lingerfeldt Road (also known as County Road 180) extending toward County Road 514. Along Skaggs Road, a stone house was completely obliterated with much of the interior debris strewn well away from the structure. A supporting large cement and stone pillar was ripped completely out of the ground. Another home along Skaggs Road was also leveled to the ground. The NOAA overflight showed significant ground scarring in this area and a walk through the nearby fields showed large pot marks and other sections of disturbed ground.”

In addition, ongoing ground surveys found four previously undetected tornado tracks in Marshall County, bringing the total number of tornadoes statewide on April 27 to 61.

The newly discovered Marshall twisters included three EF1s and an EF0.

Darden said physical surveys of damaged areas are nearing completion.

“The April 27 outbreak has consumed our lives here at the weather service,” Darden said. “In a way, there’s a lot more scrutiny placed on the survey process now, with the Internet and blogs.”

Final surveys will likely not show any additional tornado tracks but could result in some April 27 tracks being lengthened. For instance, a track that began in Cordova, which is in the Birmingham NWS coverage area, extended into Marshall County in the Huntsville coverage area. Another that began in Haleyville entered the Sipsey Wilderness in the Bankhead National Forest, where surveying is complicated by heavy underbrush and the fact that another storm swept the area and caused damage on April 20.

The track of the EF5 tornado that struck Smithville, Miss., will likely be extended into Hodges in Franklin County, Ala., Darden said, but by the time the twister crossed the state line, its winds were no longer strong enough for an EF5 ranking.

Meteorologists say the final “official” reports from the massive outbreak will be as accurate as scientifically possible, but all agree the task of surveying these storms was overwhelming.

Typically, NWS reports state what time the tornado touched down, its path, wind speed and how many fatalities it caused. The reports also contain brief descriptions of where fatalities occurred — in cars or buildings — and damage to structures.

These reports help weather scientists study the impact of tornadoes, as well as learn which forms of shelter are safest.

However, because so many tornado paths overlapped, determining touchdown times has been difficult, several experts have said.

Also, experts have not always been able to determine where and when victims died in the storms.

Witnesses told officials one man in Phil Campbell attempted to leave his mobile home and make it to a well-built home nearby. When his body was discovered, he was in a field with car keys in his hand. “We don’t know if he was blown out of the car or if he was running toward the house,” Darden said.

People in Rainsville, Phil Campbell and Oak Grove had a low probability of survival if they did not have underground shelters, Darden said, which is typically the case with an EF5. The reason fatalities were relatively low in Limestone County — four people died — is because the winds had likely lessened to EF4 speed while traveling through the county, which can leave some walls standing.

“In part of Limestone County, the tornado was slightly weaker as it moved through so if people got into an interior room, they were able to survive,” he said.

Darden said no new tornado paths are likely to be added in Limestone and Madison counties. Seven tornadoes were reported in Limestone — an EF5, four EF1s and two EF0s, though it was discovered last week that an EF1 was simultaneously alongside the EF5 that hit Tanner and East Limestone. The smaller tornado — known as a satellite vortex of a larger tornado — touched down on the Limestone and Madison county line, but primarily affected Madison County, Darden said.

The official listing — which includes all tornadoes surveyed by the National Weather Service since 1950 — can be found at www.spc.noaa.gov/faq/tornado/f5torns.html.

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