On April 27, 2011, from well before dawn to way past sunset, Alabama hosted a perfect set of weather conditions to produce a super tornado outbreak totaling 62 confirmed tornadoes. These storms ravaged the state in two waves and were responsible for the deaths of 247 residents, according to state officials.
The American Red Cross estimated that more than 23,553 homes were damaged or destroyed by the tornadoes, ranging in severity on the Enhanced Fujita Scale from EF-0 to EF-5, the most destructive.
The first tornado hit Waterloo in the northwest corner of the state at 4 a.m. The last was reported at 9:48 p.m. in Verbena, in west central Alabama. In between, tornadoes roamed the state, tracking across 1,207 miles, according to the Alabama Emergency Management Agency.
Forewarned of the Weather to Come
Alabama’s State Emergency Operations Center in Clanton staffed up, prepared and was ready. Jeff Byard, executive operations officer for AEMA and the state coordinating officer for this disaster, was one of the 30 individuals stationed at the EOC. He arrived early in the morning on the 27th, got updates, met with operations staff and advised his superiors. “We knew it was going to be bad, but nobody knew just how bad these storms would be,” he said.
By 8:30 a.m., the EOC was fully activated, making state resources available to assist local law enforcement, life safety and transportation officials. The first fatality was reported less than a half hour later.
The National Weather Service’s Birmingham Weather Forecast Office logged 145 storm-related reports such as this one from a National Weather Service Storm Surveyor in Marion County:
"An EF-5 tornado touched down southwest of Hamilton and moved northeast across Marion County and continued into Franklin County... The tornado widened just southwest Hackleburg. Thousands of trees were downed...several hundred structures were damaged...at least 100 of these structures were completely destroyed...including Hackleburg High School and the Wrangler Plant. Many homes were leveled. The track was 25.2 miles long in Marion County and 3/4 mile wide with peak winds of 200 mph.”
“It soon became very apparent that the state could not handle the emergency alone,” Byard said. “And as severe as the morning storms were, it only got worse in the afternoon. It will go down in history as the worst outbreak of tornadoes in Alabama.”
Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley, in office for just three months, had a major disaster on his hands. Within hours, he declared a state of emergency and mobilized 1,400 National Guard troops to help with search and rescue, to provide logistical coordination of debris removal and to assist with law enforcement.
Within 24 hours, he requested the president to declare an expedited major disaster for Alabama. President Obama immediately fulfilled that request, freeing up funding and federal resources to support the state.
On April 28, Bentley opened the 2-1-1 Connects Alabama call center to register disaster volunteers. The next day, he deployed 35 mutual aid teams to disaster areas to provide medical aid and assist with search and rescue. That same day he opened a recovery response call center where survivors could obtain information and resources.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency Mobilized Immediately
Many FEMA staff used the EOC as a base for their operations, using every free space and available corner in the building. FE...