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

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

 

Huntsville, Alabama, was struck by a deadly tornado around 4:30 pm on Wednesday, November 15, 1989. From an initial touchdown point on the Redstone Arsenal, the storm cut a destructive, 18.5-mile swath on its northeast trek across the southern sections of Huntsville. Plowing through businesses and heavily populated residential areas of the city, the tornado left a tragic legacy; 21 dead, 463 injured and damage estimated at 100 million dollars. Twelve of the 21 fatalities occurred in automobiles as many persons were homeward bound during the afternoon rush hour. The storm was rated an F4 on the Fujita Tornado Intensity Scale.

Historically, tornadoes are no strangers to persons in north Alabama, where Huntsville and Madison County are located. The region felt the destructive power of the April 3-4, 1974, Super Outbreak and records show that Madison County has had 25 tornadoes from 1950 through October, 1989.

Anyone listening to the NOAA Weather Radio (NWR) or monitoring the commercial broadcast media should have been aware that November 15th was expected to be a severe weather day. The Zone and Local Forecasts issued during the early morning, Tuesday, November 14, mentioned the possibility of severe thunderstorms on Wednesday. Subsequent forecasts and statements marked with increasing certainty the ominous nature of the events to come.

The National Severe Storms Forecast Center (NSSFC) issued a Public Severe Weather Outlook at 9:30 am Wednesday and highlighted the unusually strong potential for severe thunderstorms and tornadoes over the Tennessee Valley. The Birmingham Forecast Office followed with a Special Weather Statement at 10:50 am with the headline, "MAJOR SEVERE WEATHER THREAT POISED FOR ALABAMA AND NORTHWEST FLORIDA!".

A Tornado Watch was in effect for Madison and adjacent counties from 12:30 pm to 8:00 pm. Soon after the issuance of the watch, emergency management officials, storm spotters and the NWS staff at Huntsville placed into effect a coordinated plan of action in accordance with established procedures.

Beginning at 12:45 pm, WSO Huntsville issued warnings for the west part of its county warning area (see Figure 19) as an intense squall line moved into northwest Alabama. Storm spotters reported large hail and intense straight-line wind associated with this squall line.

At the time the tornado struck Huntsville, a Severe Thunderstorm Warning was in effect for Madison County. That warning, issued at 4:13 pm, was changed to a Tornado Warning at 4:35 pm based on a report relayed through the amateur radio spotter network of a tornado touchdown in the city.

Critical weather information was disseminated in a timely fashion over the NOAA Weather Wire Service (NWWS) and NWR and by many media outlets in Huntsville and adjacent areas providing the public with frequent weather updates on radio and "crawls" and live "cut-ins" on television. Links with spotter groups and emergency management and law enforcement officials worked well.

Some persons in the path of the tornado felt they were not adequately warned. Either they did not hear the Severe Thunderstorm Warning for Madison County or, if they did, the warning did not raise their level of concern for destructive weather clearly associated with a tornado. Yet, many others called in to local radio talk shows to say they knew well in advance that severe weather was likely for the area. Tragically, many motorists were caught on congested streets and highways in the nearly pitch black conditions of the on-rushing storm. Undoubtedly, many never saw the tornado, making escape virtually impossible with such little time to react. There were, however, several accounts of persons leaving their vehicles as the storm approached but most stayed in them.

Although the Jones Valley Elementary School was virtually destroyed by the storm, the timely actions of the principal and a teacher in charge of the Extended Daycare Program probably spared the lives of 37 children and several other teachers. Acting in accordance with the principal's instructions, the teacher directed the children, accompanied by the other teachers, to a safer location under the stairwell on the first floor of the school. Several workmen who were painting in the teachers lounge, ran to the children and shielded them with their bodies as the storm struck.

The Survey Team believes the following findings and recommendations can serve as a means to highlight the strengths of the warning system and to identify areas where improvements are still possible.

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