How Was This Storm Different?

Beloved Alabama meteorologist James Spann explains the significance of the April 27 tornadoes from the perspective of a weatherman and a Southerner.
James Spann

Editor’s Note: James Spann became more than a weatherman during the April 27 tornadoes. He became a modern-day town crier, saving countless lives with Twitter updates that his followers turned to on their phones when the power failed. After the storm passed, he connected people who wanted to help with the people who needed it, 140 characters at a time. His answers to our questions were so well said that we decided to share them with you just as he wrote them.

The April 27th Alabama tornado outbreak was generational. It is rare to have that many strong/violent tornadoes in one day, killing that many people. What made it especially unique was the morning round of storms, which was a disaster in itself. Five people were killed as the sun was coming up, and over a quarter million Alabamians had no power. As that settled down by mid-morning and the sun was returning, we knew the powder keg would explode later in the day when the main energy arrived. And, we also knew getting word out would be especially difficult due to the widespread nature of the morning power outages.

The first afternoon storm exploded in intensity, and produced a tornado that we caught live on our Skycam in Cullman, Ala. When your first storm of the day produces a strong/violent tornado, you know the stage is set for real trouble. It was about eight hours of non-stop tornado warnings, almost like the state was dodging bullets from hell. There were times I was tempted just to let the live video of these killer tornadoes speak for themselves, but I couldn't do that because so many were listening on radio due to the power outages. Words didn't always come easily.

It totally took our breath away. It was truly a once in a lifetime event.

We knew in the days leading up to the event that a major tornado outbreak was likely, but you never know where they will actually develop. Most of the time, they occur over open country or unpopulated areas, and they don't make headlines. But this was just a day when these monster storms were drawn to humanity. Not only cities like Tuscaloosa and Birmingham, but small towns like Hackleburg, Sawyerville, Webster's Chapel, and Ohatchee.

I have lived in Alabama almost all my life. I am old enough to remember the wild spring tornado seasons of the 1970s: Brent in May 1973, Guin, Jasper, and Huntsville in 1974, Tuscaloosa in 1975, and Birmingham in 1977. I guess it was simply too quiet for too long; we were statistically overdue for a big spring season. But just because I lived through the 70s, it didn't make seeing all of this any easier. In fact, after 32 years of being a professional meteorologist, I can tell you it gets harder.

I won't be able to feel the pain some of my friends have experienced, but I do believe good things will come. In fact, the best thing was how us Southerners reacted immediately to the tragedy. Neighbors helping neighbors, across socio-economic lines. Churches taking care of widows, orphans, and the homeless. After this tornado outbreak, our people knew what to do, and how to do it.

And, I believe it will make us stronger.

One thing is for sure. Some brilliant meteorologists will come from this day. The tornadoes I lived through in the 1970s were responsible for my intense interest in weather and a long, wonderful career. Watch the same thing happen this time.

What was the defining moment in all of this?

For me, no doubt the funerals. We know that 242 were killed (at the time I am writing this). Numbers are very important to me, but sometimes they don't tell the story. At all those funerals, you learn the human toll. These were children, moms, dads, grandparents, and people you might see at the ballpark or supermarket. I never dreamed we would have this many killed by a tornado event at this time in history due to the warning process. This is a reminder that humility is one thing missing from science—we have come a long way, but we must get better in preparing and warning people when the storms of spring come.

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