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Tornado outbreak of 2011 still impacts weather forecasting 10 years later

By
Lauren Fox, Accuweather.com
More than 700 homes were damaged or destroyed, as seen in St. Louis, Mo., on April 23, 2011, after an F-4 tornado swept through the area. File Photo by Bill Greenblatt/UPI
More than 700 homes were damaged or destroyed, as seen in St. Louis, Mo., on April 23, 2011, after an F-4 tornado swept through the area. File Photo by Bill Greenblatt/UPI | License Photo

April 30 -- The end of April 2021 marks an entire decade since a severe weather event that the National Weather Service called "one of the most active, destructive, and deadly" in U.S. history for tornadoes, and even 10 years later, the effects of this historic event still reverberate.

April 25 through April 28, 2011, marks the 2011 Super Outbreak for tornadoes in the southern United States. Thousands across the region were injured and hundreds lost their lives.

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Events like the super outbreak of 2011 are "generational" and typically occur once every 40 years. Similar events also occurred in 1974 and 1932, but only the ones in 1974 and 2011 are largely referred to as "super outbreaks," AccuWeather Meteorologist Jake Sojda explained.

The outbreak in 1974 was the largest in U.S. history before the outbreak in 2011 surpassed it.

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"The Super Outbreak of 2011 was pretty well forecast, although a historic event like this that surpasses anything ever recorded before is seldom predicted to its exact level of severity," Sojda said.

"Meteorologists can often tell if it has the potential to be bad, or even really bad, but it's very hard to tell if it's going to be the worst we've seen since, of course, we've never actually seen it before."

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James Spann, a meteorologist who's been in the industry since 1978, covered the Super Outbreak for WBMA-TV in Birmingham, Ala., broadcasting for 10 hours straight on April 27 to deliver life-saving forecasts to Alabama residents.

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"I don't think anyone knew it was going to produce that many tornadoes," Spann told AccuWeather in an interview. "You don't know that for sure. However, the messaging was strong enough to where people knew that it was going to be a dangerous day with violent weather."

Meteorologists knew that the severe weather was going to be bad, and threats started ramping up early on in the day. Five deaths and tons of damage were already reported in the morning. By late afternoon, Spann said, it had become clear the event would be of a historic caliber.

"We didn't know the [tornado] ratings of course at the time, but we knew there was horrible damage," Spann recalled.

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Prior to the historic outbreak in 2011, the United States had not seen an EF5 tornado, the highest-ranked on the Enhanced Fujita scale, in three years. On April 27, 2011, four EF5 tornadoes touched down. Across the entire outbreak, 11 EF4 tornadoes and 22 EF3 tornadoes were also confirmed.

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Spann said his 10-hour broadcast on April 27 was nothing new -- the weather in Alabama often calls for extra coverage.

"This is a very aggressive severe weather market," he explained. "The challenge was dealing with multiple strong tornadoes that were down at the same time. Which one do you focus on?"

The WBMA-TV studio, located in Hoover, was safe from the tornado outbreak during that lengthy broadcast. Producers had also drawn up a plan to conduct a live broadcast from a stairwell if the specific studio he was using needed to be evacuated.

"I missed the historical nature of the day because I was so busy," Spann said, noting that keeping up with all of the severe weather that day prevented the gravity of the situation from immediately sinking in.

Due to the super outbreak and the subsequent deaths caused by it, Spann said some in the local news and weather community discovered that many people in the South had some dangerous misconceptions about tornado and severe weather warnings. For example, he said, people expected to hear a siren to warn of the deadly weather, which is a practice that hasn't been popular since World War II.

"What we have to do is learn from that event," he said of the way his coverage has adapted over time to the needs of the viewers. "What I do today is different than what I did 10 years ago."

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On top of a lack of knowledge of modern-day tornado warnings, Sojda said there were far fewer people in 2011 who owned smartphones with weather apps and access to push alerts than there are now. Power outages also left many people without access to television broadcasts like Spann's.

An American flag is seen attached to a downed limb near a home that was destroyed in Joplin, Mo., on May 23, 2011. A massive tornado hit the small a day earlier and was part of an outbreak of twisters in the South and Midwest in April and May of 2011. File Photo by Rick Meyer/UPI

Another lesson learned from the disaster, Spann said, was that many people don't think to wear a helmet when tornadoes are spinning up, which can be a life-saving move as many deaths during tornado outbreaks are due to blunt force trauma to the neck and skull.

"A cheap Walmart bicycle helmet will save a whole lot of lives," Spann said.

He said the learning experience from that fateful day allowed himself and other meteorologists to realize what their coverage was missing, and now, because of that outbreak, he strives to pass along life-saving advice to viewers.

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Spann said another big takeaway in terms of covering such a severe event in real-time was the power of asking the public to pass along messages to friends, neighbors and loved ones who do not pay close attention to weather forecasts and would otherwise be left in the dark on when to evacuate or take shelter.

"We now ask the public, 'Hey, if you know somebody in this polygon, call them or text them. You can be a hero,'" Spann explained.

While Spann's own property was safe during the outbreak, his home faced destruction last month when it was hit by an EF3 tornado on March 25 -- while he was live on television covering the severe weather.

He said that many people associate April 27, 2011, with an EF4 tornado in Tuscaloosa, but that there were an additional 61 tornadoes in Alabama that day. Two-hundred and fifty-two people died in the state that day alone, and almost 350 people overall were killed in the outbreak.

In addition, the damage caused by the outbreak still has not fully been reconstructed and continues to affect the community in Alabama, even a decade later. The outbreak resulted in billions of dollars in damage in addition to the tragic loss of life it caused.

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"For that kind of situation you don't recover in a year, you don't recover in five years, and again in some places people are still struggling today," Spann said. "Just ask anybody that lost a loved one that day. They're hurting just as bad today as they did 10 years ago."

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