Alabama Tornadoes…Live From Tuscaloosa

I wanted to start with amazing, yet dangerous, video of the Tuscaloosa tornado on April 27th. Watch it all the way through. This is the monster that caused all the death and destruction.

Last Wednesday evening it became clear that the tornado outbreak was not a typical event. I urged our mangers to send us to the damage to give people of SE Wisconsin a first hand account of the damage and give viewers the Wisconsin connection to the tragedy.

Photojournalist Jason Hunter and I took off at 11:30 from Mitchell on Thursday morning and landed in Birmingham at 4:45 PM after a Chicago layover. We immediately got our rental car and made our way to Tuscaloosa. Tuscaloosa is about an hour Southwest of Birmingham.  On our way down we saw some trees down, but damage was minimal. We were concerned about getting into the area because we had been hearing that the area was closed and a curfew was about to commence.  Thankfully, all of the police officers were very helpful throughout our visit and allowed us to get to the hardest hit areas.

Once we reached the east side of Tuscaloosa, the damage was breathtaking. A huge swath of damage about a mile wide had ripped right through a highly populated area just south of the University of Alabama campus. When we arrived there were dozens of people walking the streets in a daze. The homeowners were at the area where their homes once stood picking through the pieces, but not finding much in the terrible devastation.

This was the most difficult part of covering the aftermath of tornadoes. Watching the empty look on the faces of so many people. When we arrived search teams were still combing through all the wreckage. In the area where we were on the first day a little girl was found dead in the debris. You could see the impact this had on the volunteer searches. It was really a tough day. We actually had to stay in a hotel without power, but compared to what others were facing, this was truly a minor inconvenience.

On day 2, the look of shock on the people’s faces turned more to resolve and reality. It is going to be a monumental task. Friday was also the day people across the country descended on the south to lend a hand. We met volunteers from Louisiana making gumbo and from Texas making barbecue. Friday was also the day that people really started to roll up their sleeves and started the Herculean task of cleaning up.

We also found many stories of hope and survival. We highlighted one of these stories on Friday night. Ben Johnson was working in an oil change store as the monstrous tornado approached. His cousin, John Ballard, from West Bend, alerted us to his amazing story of survival. Ben and ten others survived the storm taking shelter in the pit where the oil is changed. This was the only way the 11 people survived without a scratch. Take a look at the pictures of what was left of the store after the tornado ripped through.

The pit was under the ground. This was the only way they could have survived.

The big question that was being asked over and over is why so many people died. The warnings were issued well in advance. People heeded the warnings and went into the center of their homes away from windows. The biggest reason why so many died is because most homes in the south do not have basements. The main reason is because the water table is too high. Furthermore, these tornadoes were so powerful they swept entire homes off of their foundations. Take a look at the picture below.

This was a picture I took in Tuscaloosa of one home swept completely away. There is a crawl space underneath the home, but there usually is no way to get take shelter there.

It was a difficult story to cover. I never imagined in my career I would see this amount of deaths from an outbreak of tornadoes. There will be much to learn from this tragic event. It is my hope that storm shelters will be more common across the south. Please use this outbreak as a learning tool to go your basement when tornado warnings are issued. It can happen here.

Covering the aftermath of the tornado outbreak gave me a greater appreciation of how devastating the weather can be. I have covered the aftermath of tornadoes in Wisconsin, Missouri, Iowa and Illinois, but have never seen anything like this. I have even been through two hurricanes. Frances and Rita did not have the extensive damage like the tornadoes. I want to thank my right hand man during our coverage. Photojournalist Jason Hunter did an awesome job putting all of our video pieces together. A big thank you to him.


Thanks for reading. A cool day on the way for tomorrow with highs only in the 40s. Warmer air arrives by Friday.



12 Responses

  1. Stunning and incredibly sad… thanks for your hard work, Mark. Our prayers go out to those in the south. Well done covering the story.


    • Thanks, Dan.

      Keep those prayers coming. They need them and any other support we can give.


  2. Mark,
    Incredible video – I could not believe that you were even driving and recording all of that – I kept wondering when the tornado would stop – it seemed huge on my screen – I could not even imagine what it looked like in person. My prayers go out to those people who have lost their loved ones and their homes.

  3. Mark, I am glad your manager honored your request. Thank you for sharing your journey. Unfortunately these are the types of intense images I imagine each time severe weather is near. Frightening and all too real.

    • It was an amazing trip and I really hope we never see anything like that in Wisconsin.


  4. Hey Mark,
    Incredible footage and pictures you have. It is those split second decisions people make that can be the difference between life and death. Those guys at the oil change place used their instincts wisely.
    In that video you posted, when the guy rolled down his window… It brought back a memory that I will never forget. I went chasing with a professional once and heard that very same sound. The trouble was it was night and I couldn’t see much of anything where we were. We ended up going to the area where the tornado hit and just seeing the look on people’s faces, words can’t describe. That tornado wasn’t near the intensity of the one in Tuscaloosa, nobody perished luckily, but the affects were very much the same for those that survived it. I mourn for those who were lost and hope that lessons can be learned despite all the tragedy.

    • MCI,

      Is that the time I was with you? If it is, I’ll never forget the baseball sized hail!


  5. Was this an EF5 tornado? How long was it on the ground for?

    • Bryan,
      The Tuscaloosa tornado was a high-end EF-4. The tornado track was 80 miles long. I believe it was on the ground for about 100 minutes.


  6. Hey Jeremy,
    Yeah, after the power went out and Sean somehow missed getting pelted as he went to fetch some stones, you could hear the exact same sound that’s in the video when the guy rolls down his window. I wouldn’t really call it freight train like most people describe it, but it was exactly like in the video! That was crazy, wasn’t it?

  7. Hi, Mark!

    Please add my appreciation to that which you have already received for bringing us so close to the tornado story. As I shared with Jeremy in a post las tweek — when you put faces with the facts, it becomes so much more personal — real people with real losses. If nothing else, it serves {or it least it should serve} to teach us to appreciate all we have, as well as to heed the warnings. It had to have been horrible for those folks to seek safety and find none. I believe it says something about the value that ch. 12 puts on the news that you were the only local reporter there. The entire team there reports things from a standpoint not just of you need to know this, but you need to know this and you need to care. That’s important!

    I led our congregation in special prayers for the folks down south in our services this past Sunday, and will do so again at our Weds. night service.

    For what it’s worth — the report from up here in Reeseville is that it’s been a cloudy, gloomy day, reminding more of fall than late spring. Temp has been hovering around upper 30’s and low–very low 40’s. We’ve also had on-again–off-again showers and drizzle. I believe a few snow flakes at times too. I heard on the Beaver Dam radio station this a.m. that it was snowing in Randolph, which is northeast of Columbus.

    But, in comparison to what you have shared with us, who can complain??

    See you on TV!


    • Thanks, Don. Keep the prayers coming for the people in the south. They will need them for a long time to come.


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