Huntsville Tornado, Nov. 15, 1989 - Southern Region Disaster Survey
|The Survey Team members conducted a number of interviews with victims of the Huntsville tornado. In addition to those accounts, a number of reports were reviewed through newspaper coverage. Several accounts were shared with the Survey Team by the meteorologists at NASA who have collected a number of first person stories. Individual accounts from Survey Team interviews are provided in Appendix E.
Many people, both those interviewed by the Survey Team and others, expressed a clear awareness of the threat of severe weather on November 15th. Even without the presence of a Tornado Warning (a Tornado Watch and Severe Thunderstorm Warning were in effect), many people in apartments, homes, and schools responded appropriately to the tornado danger. Interviews and later accounts indicated that many people in cars knew that was not a good place to be. At the heart of the tornado destruction, some people took steps to get out of cars. In one known case, a man received 100 stitches for injuries received after leaving his pickup truck; the truck had still not been located several days after the storm.
Others, in residential structures in Jones Valley, took recommended actions by seeking shelter in interior rooms. In one case, a woman with several children under her charge got seven people into two downstairs bathrooms; the only section of the house still standing after the tornado struck. At Jones Valley School, students in an after-school Extended Daycare Program were moved from the second floor to an area under a stairway on the first floor. This action directly saved the lives of 37 students and five teachers since the upper floor of the school was totally destroyed.
A number of apartment complexes were struck and seriously damaged by the tornado, however, it is impossible to document actions of apartment dwellers since the Survey Team was unable to interview anyone who weathered the storm in an apartment.
A similar situation exists for mobile homes. Very few mobile homes were struck by the storm, but most of those that were struck were destroyed. Only one person was killed in a mobile home located in the eastern portion of Madison County.
Commercial buildings were vulnerable as the tornado moved through a section of businesses including several small shopping centers. Newspaper accounts indicated that many people knew to move away from the large glass windows. The construction of commercial buildings with the large span roofs made them susceptible to significant damage. Most of those commercial buildings that sustained serious damage from the tornado were bulldozed to the ground.
Perhaps the biggest tragedy in Huntsville was the fact that the tornado initially occurred in a densely populated area. After beginning on the Redstone Arsenal, the tornado moved across a golf course and immediately into an area of businesses and apartment complexes. Nineteen of the 21 deaths occurred in a one mile stretch of the tornado path along Airport Road roughly between Memorial Parkway and Whitesburg Road.
People involved in the normal going-home activities at 4:30 pm were confronted with a major tornado. To further complicate the need for action, the thunderstorm turned the late afternoon to nearly pitch black conditions. This made it difficult if not impossible for drivers to recognize the tornado.
Even with recognition, the normally crowded highway arteries and lack of time to respond left motorists with few places to seek shelter.