Huntsville Tornado, Nov. 15, 1989 - Southern Region Disaster Survey

Part I

Description and Impact of the Huntsville Tornado


Huntsville is located in the north-central part of Alabama in southern Madison County. While the 1980 census listed the population of Huntsville as 142,513, the city has undergone substantial growth in the last decade with the expansion of high-tech and space-related industry and business. As a result, the current population is nearly 180,000. Huntsville is the county seat of Madison County and the home of the Redstone Arsenal.

Tornadoes are reasonably well known to the people of north- central Alabama. The historic April 3-4, 1974, tornado outbreak devastated a large part of northern Alabama including Madison County. The tornado database from the National Severe Storms Forecast Center (NSSFC) in Kansas City and 1989 Storm Data records indicate that 25 tornadoes have occurred in Madison County from 1950 through October, 1989. This places Madison County with the 5th highest number of tornado occurrences by county in Alabama. Those 25 tornadoes were responsible for 17 fatalities.

On the afternoon of Wednesday, November 15, 1989, around 4:30 pm, a tornado struck the southern portion of the city of Huntsville cutting a swath of destruction from southwest toward the northeast through a business section and a heavily populated residential area. Twenty one people died as a result of the tornado and 463 were injured. Eighteen people died in the tornado, and two other people died in early December and one in January from injuries sustained in the tornado (see Appendix F). Total damage estimates were placed around $100 million.

The tornado struck during the beginning of rush hour and touched down initially on Redstone Arsenal and then moved into a business area crossing two major north-south highways. Twelve of the 21 deaths (57 percent) occurred in automobiles, a striking similarity to the 1979 Wichita Falls, Texas, tornado. In the Huntsville tornado, most of those killed in cars were in the process of performing normal tasks as opposed to seeking automobiles for safety.

As the thunderstorm moved into the southwest corner of Madison County at 4:15 pm, the staff on duty at the WSO at Huntsville International Airport observed a wall cloud and rain-free base with the thunderstorm. The wall cloud showed no signs of rotation and dissipated shortly after being spotted.

Shortly after this, between 4:20 and 4:30 pm, meteorologists working for NASA on the Redstone Arsenal observed a wall cloud and rain-free base with the thunderstorm as it moved across the southern portion of the Arsenal. Around 4:25 pm, they observed rotation in the wall cloud.

According to information shared with the National Weather Service by Duane Stiegler with Dr. Ted Fujita's group from the University of Chicago, the initial point of damage occurred 1 mile southsouthwest of Madkin Mountain on the Redstone Arsenal near the intersection of Fowler Road and Mills Road. Trees were downed and some roof gutters damaged. From eyewitness accounts of the wall cloud, circulating air may have reached the ground without a visible funnel.

The tornado continued on a northeast track passing northeast of Building 5250 on the Arsenal. Little damage was done to that building. The storm then moved into a sparsely developed area, but it did do about $1 million in damage to Huntsville's garbage-burning plant which was nearing the end of construction.

At this point, the tornado began to cross the old Huntsville Airport and a large portion of the adjacent municipal golf course. It was here that the tornado struck the Huntsville Police Academy which generated one of the first reports of the existence of the tornado. Two officers were injured at the Police Academy.

 From the golf course, the tornado entered a business and heavily populated area of Huntsville. The tornado crossed Memorial Parkway (US 231 and State Highway 53), a major north-south traffic artery. The tornado destroyed a number of shopping complexes, office buildings, an apartment complex, and churches as it slowly crossed Airport Road. It crossed Whitesburg Road, another relatively major north-south highway.

Nineteen of the twenty-one fatalities occurred in the area between the intersection of Airport Road and Memorial Parkway and the intersection of Airport Road and Whitesburg Road. Eleven of the deaths occurred in automobiles, four in apartments, and four in commercial buildings.

From the intersection of Whitesburg Road and Airport Road, the tornado moved up Garth Mountain, as it continued on a northeast course. This took the tornado into a heavily wooded section. As it crossed the top of Garth Mountain and moved down the east side, it struck Jones Valley Elementary School on Garth Road.

Thirty-seven children, five teachers, and seven painters were in the school when the tornado struck. The children were part of an Extended Daycare Program conducted at the school. The lead teacher of the day-care program moved the children from the second floor of the school building into a small open area under the stairway on the first floor. This action, first suggested by the school principal as she left for the day, saved the lives of the children. These actions are detailed in Appendix E.

One woman was killed in an automobile driving along Garth Road en route to the school.

From the school, the tornado crossed Garth Road and moved across a portion of Jones Valley Subdivision, a development of well-constructed single family homes. The tornado severely damaged or destroyed a number of homes in the Jones Valley subdivision. It continued across Jones Valley moving up Huntsville Mountain. The area from Huntsville Mountain to the end of the tornado path is rural with only scattered structures. The tornado continued to destroy or severely damage whatever structures it encountered.

The tornado topped Huntsville Mountain and moved down the east side crossing US 431. It traveled through this valley in the vicinity of Dug Hill before moving up and over Chestnut Knob. From Chestnut Knob the tornado traversed the Flint River valley referred to as Salty Bottoms, crossing the Flint River and US 72 (Lee Highway). It crossed US 72 one mile southeast of Brownsboro.

The tornado continued on an east-northeast track over Reed Mountain to a small lake at the headwaters of the Killingsworth Cove Branch, a small creek which feeds into the Flint River. The tornado path ended at the southeast tip of this small lake.

The total path length was 18.5 miles from the initial beginning on the Redstone Arsenal to it's end at the headwaters of Killingsworth Cove Branch. The damage path was generally about one half mile wide; however, it reached nearly one mile in width in the Flint River/US 72 area. The tornado was classified as an F4 on the Fujita Tornado Scale.

A summary of damage from reports gathered by the Huntsville Times included:

259 Homes destroyed
130 Homes with major damage
148 Homes with minor to moderate damage
80 Businesses destroyed
8 Businesses damaged
3 Churches heavily damaged
2 Schools destroyed
10 Public buildings destroyed or heavily damaged

$1.9 Million in public utility damage

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