North Alabama tornadoes: a personal story

The following is a personal account from my friend Megan, who lives in Ardmore, AL on the AL/TN state line. The surrounding areas were among the hardest hit during the April 27, 2011 tornadoes that ravaged much of central and northern Alabama. Only several weeks before, I was there to photograph her wedding. We spent the weekend under a line of bad squalls that forced us to hastily move her outdoor wedding indoors while thunder, lightning, hail and torrential rain raged on. It seemed like a portent of things to come…

You always imagine a child playing in the front yard, in the water, during a beautiful sunny day in April. The fluffy white clouds are blowing by, birds are chirping, and the blue sky is as bright as can be. Not a care in the world; just sunshine, and warm water. I recently witnessed this, on Friday, April 29, 2011. The setting was picturesque, except for the fact that I was bathing my 4 year old, in a tub of lukewarm water, in the front yard, just so he could have a bath. We had no power.

The past few days have been a terrible eye opener. On Wednesday April 27th, my hometown was struck by many tornados. Let me correct that, my home state was devastated by several tornados. It put most of Madison, Limestone, Morgan, Jackson, Cullman and DeKalb counties in the dark, for at least three days and more for some.

So let me say this before I start the recount of that day; our world may seem dark right now, but our hearts are heavy, our prayer lists are full, our eyes are wide, but our hands ready to work.

Wednesday the 27th was a little out of the normal for us. I had picked up a 6am to 2pm shift at work, meaning I had to be up at 4:30am. I heard my alarm go off, but to an accompaniment of Limestone county tornado sirens. My husband and I hit the floor running. (Let me pause right here to add a little side note. Our local meteorologists have a habit of over warning. I think my husband phrased it as, “Their day is not complete unless they send out a warning to our cell phones.” I appreciate the early warning system, it worked for this day, but in the past it got tiresome. I cannot tell you the countless times we have picked our son up from school to have a typical thunderstorm pass by. It got frustrating. I think that this mindset played a big part in the attitudes that day. I believe people didn’t put enough credit in “the little boy who cried wolf”.  We were tired.)

With the TV on, we made the decision to keep our son home with Chris while I headed off to work. Driving to south Huntsville, from the Tennessee state line in a very electrical thunderstorm is terrifying. At one point on the radio they said their Doppler radar had picked up 600 lightning strikes in 10 minutes. You do the math.

An hour later, I arrived at work. I work at a skilled nursing facility, working with joint replacement patients, and also long-term care. We have certain state guideline to go by during storms, floods, fires and earthquakes. Needless to say, my residents spent most of the day in the hallways, covered by blankets. The thunderstorms rolled through with anger, and seemed to develop out of nowhere. Tornado warning after tornado warning got issued for our area. I was fortunate enough to be told to go home as soon as my shift was up. I had been on the phone with my friend who lives in the Monrovia area throughout the day. She had already lost power as of about noon. My trip home took almost forty five minutes longer than it should have. Traffic was backed up, signals were out, and the natives were getting restless. After about a 20 mile detour home, I made it. My husband and I parked our butts on the couch to continue to watch the radar.

Between 3:40 and 5:00 we had at least 4-5 tornados pass through Madison County. Some of them were on a long track from our south west city of Moulton. My statistics may be a bit off, but the National Weather Service still hasn’t finished surveying the damage. At approximately 4:30, we lost all cell signal and power. It literally felt like someone had ripped the rug out from under us. Dinner was half finished, we couldn’t call on our phones, and darkness was looming ever closer. Outside the storms still continued with vengeance. The sky stayed a yellow green, and we had shingles and tar paper falling like rain from the sky. To our blessed luck, my dad had bought us a 1500 watt generator which we immediately hooked up to the television and DirectTV. We kept watching in awe, as we began to see the first pictures and reports of damage across the northern part of our state. One, after another, after another.

As darkness fell, it got blacker than I have ever seen it before. No more street lights and no more house lights. Do you hear me humming the twilight zone? Our family loaded up, and headed a mile up the road to our little town of Ardmore, TN. We gassed up my car at the interstate, and ran and got bread and small snacks, because we didn’t know how long we would be out of power. We were fortunate enough to be able to run our refrigerator and deep freezer off our generator. So we grabbed milk and drinks to hopefully hold us over.  We went home for a night of restless sleep in the dark.

I am going to stop the play by play here. There has been way too much, and you would be reading for a few hours. The devastation, the destruction, and the downright fury of the storms hit close to home. We were lucky to escape with some loose shingles and a bit of debris.

On Thursday morning I got called into work. Due to working in the healthcare field, I am obligated to haul tail in. I actually got cellphone signal enough to call my friend that lives in Orange County, California as I was driving through the wreckage. I sobbed the entire time I was on the phone. The section that got hit by the tornado actually got hit in May of 1995, by a tornado. The Piggly Wiggly and our pharmacy are leveled. Gone. Those along with portions of Anderson Hills subdivision. This tornado treated it better than the one 16 years ago, but it was a devastating dose of déjà vu.

I recently spoke to someone that lived in a subdivision off of East Limestone road. The only warning his family had was a phone call from a coworker, 5 seconds later they were huddled under the stairs of their house as the tornado ripped the roof off their two story house. They huddled over their 2 month old newborn as an EF-4 tornado demolished their house and neighborhood. Without that phone call, they were literally sitting ducks. The sirens didn’t work because power was out, so that phone call saved their lives. They were lucky to have family here and have been staying with them for the past week.

The stories that are coming out now that reality has set in are breathtaking. Bigger than that, I have never been so proud of our state. The volunteers, the donations, and the selfless acts are simply amazing. I give major kudos to 102.1 WDRM ( They turned their radio station into a call in center. TVA cut power to ALL of Madison County Wednesday night due to their main transmission lines being destroyed, and just as a safety guard with all the downed power lines. Most of our county spent through Saturday in complete blackness. If it wasn’t for this radio station, no one would know where to get gas, food, or help. They honestly turned into a life line. People reunited with their families, found pets, got food, or got to a shelter. We were lucky enough to have a generator, but we still listened to people call in and offer to let someone stay at their house, borrow a generator, or to get help. I can never say enough “thank you’s” to this Clear Channel Communications Company. They went above and beyond to make sure everyone had every bit of information that they could.

I know a lot of the media focus is on Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and my heart goes out to that city, but my home is North Alabama. My home is my neighbors. My home is people that I have never met that are affected. I can never say enough how much we appreciate TVA, Athens Utilities, Huntsville Utilities and the law enforcement, EMA workers, and Healthcare staff. Since we have been under a curfew until last night, there has been no looting, robberies or break ins, because our police officers have enforced a dusk to dawn curfew. I personally have been stopped twice, but as a healthcare worker, I wasn’t arrested. That would have been a totally different story. These people have left their families to go do their job. Thank you to their families and to them as well. I know how hard it is to leave your family to take care of someone else. I had a breakdown at work Thursday because I did not want to leave mine, I felt like I belonged home, not taking care of someone else. It sounds selfish, but I’m only human.

As I type this, almost 80% of Madison County has power. There are some areas that are still in the dark, but overall the citizens of North Alabama have understood. Granted every batch has some bad apples, but overall, everyone has weathered the storm. They were probably smelly, cranky and seriously on edge, but I have never seen such an unconscious amount of grace as has been displayed in this crisis. You learn to appreciate the sound of the loud dishwasher and the ability to take a shower at will. My state will recover, we will mourn, we will heal, and then we will rebuild. Not just our homes but our faith and beliefs. Our strength will return and hopefully somewhere our sanity comes back and we return to normal. All of the above is piled in a shattered house, or thrown to the wind. It will return, and my neighbors will overcome this and be stronger than ever.

Rebuilding from the rubble may be an overused phrase, but that is exactly what we will do. We will live better, laugh longer and love harder, because nothing brings us down.

“My homes in Alabama, no matter where I lay my head. My homes in Alabama, southern born and southern bred.” -Alabama

2 responses to “North Alabama tornadoes: a personal story”

  1. […] Dana Lisa Young: shares a friend’s account of the disaster. […]

  2. […] there. Just as I knew people directly or indirectly affected by September 11, the tsunami in Japan, tornadoes here in the South, bombings in India, and the Holocaust. Is that laughter I hear? […]

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