Memories of Dec. 16, 2000, Tornado Still Strong
Like this year, December 16, 2000, was on a Saturday and that makes the memories even stronger. It was a day that will always be burned into the recollections of those who experienced one of the most powerful tornadoes to ever strike Alabama in the month of December.
It was an unusual Saturday for mid-December because it was summertime type hot and humid. The warm weather had drawn extra-large crowds out for Christmas shopping and put a lot of traffic on the roads. A lot of people in potential harm's way.
For five days television meteorologists and the National Weather Service in Birmingham had been issuing advisories about the potential for significant severe weather the coming Saturday. One such weather service advisory stated, "Saturday could be a red-letter day for severe weather across the state and south. Residents should be prepared!"
Perhaps because it was the holidays or because it was December, and many people don't associate the week before winter with tornadoes that many people were not prepared. They were out in cars, in stores, eating lunch and wrapping Christmas presents at home.
I was duty officer at the Tuscaloosa County Emergency Management Agency that weekend and believe me, with all the advance alerts of the week, I fully expected that "red letter day". Unfortunately, the forecasts became true.
Early that morning the weather outlook was ominous; a strong low-pressure system was intensifying as it moved into the southeast and it was going to continue to grow in strength. The Storm Prediction Center bumped up the advisories to include more threatening wording.
At 10:00am a very rare PDS (Particularly Dangerous Situation) Tornado Watch was issued. By the time I arrived at the Tuscaloosa County EOC, tornadoes were already being spawned in Mississippi and they were headed our way.
From the safety of the EOC, then under Tuscaloosa City Hall, I activated the EOC staff and deployed some of the true heroes of that day, our storm spotters. They are trained observers, mostly amateur radio operators, who know what they are looking for and are willing to drive toward the storm in order to give advance word on what is happening to help save lives. That advanced word saved lives that day.
Radar began showing a signature that was obviously a debris field associated with a warned system near Meridian, MS. It moved into Alabama on a direct line toward Tuscaloosa County.
At 12:40pm the National Weather Service alarm went off, bells began to ring on the weather teletype, a Tornado Warning had been issued for Tuscaloosa County. The outdoor warning sirens were activated and a cable tv alert was issued. Front line spotters identified the rotation as it passed from Greene into Tuscaloosa County. It wasn't on the ground yet, but it was close.
Storm spotter Kirk Junkin, near Taylorville, was next to pick up the twister visually and it was now on the ground. It popped up on the ABC3340 Tower Cam and it was a monster.
Amateur radio and first responder radio frequencies were cluttered with dispatches when Junkin advised it was on the ground in Taylorville. All of a sudden everything went silent. Moments seemed like hours. We could see the soundless twister on the tower cam and traffic cameras. We could see traffic was still driving right into its path despite the warning. It was a helpless feeling because there was nothing more we could do than wait for the tornado to plough through the heavily populated area and then respond.
All of a sudden, all radio frequencies exploded with sound. Calls for ambulances at Bear Creek Trailer Park, another call for rescue on 69 South near the under-construction Winn Dixie strip mall fire units requested to Hillcrest Meadows near the high school. Police and fire units on the way, others arriving and ambulances beginning to transport all vied for audio space.
Junkin switched from spotter to being a responder as the powerful twister continued to cut an 18-mile-long swath across the southern edge of Tuscaloosa. The storm with 207mph-plus winds crossed U.S. 82, passed just behind Walmart, damaged homes in Woodland Forest, crossed Skyland Blvd. and at exit 77 on I20/59 a number of commercial structures including hotels, fast food restaurants, and truck stops sustained damage including a number of vehicles that were overturned. At 1:20pm the storm dissipated in an open field just east of Cottondale.
11 people died and 128 were injured during the 38 minutes the tornado was on the ground.
251 single family homes were damaged that day (43 destroyed, 76 with major damage and 138 with minor damage). 179 mobile homes were impacted by the storm with more than a third of them totally destroyed.
A remarkable moment became the symbol for that disaster as it made newspaper front pages and tv newscasts across the world. 7-year-old Whitney Crowder lost her father and 15-month-old brother when the tornado devastated their mobile home at Bear Creek. Unconscious, she was carried to safety by Michael Harris, a moment that was captured by Tuscaloosa photographer Michael E. Palmer. She is now married with children of her own.
There was also a miracle that day, construction crews were scheduled to be working at the nearly completed Winn Dixie that day, but their foreman had seen the heads-up given by the National Weather Service and cancelled the workday, perhaps saving dozens of more lives.
The storm could have been worse had it not been for ABC3340's James Spann. The tower cam images were among their live visuals of a twister, seeing it and listening to his urgent plea for people to seek shelter saved lives. It is now media coverage that is standard.
We are in the final weeks of the November through December "Secondary Severe Weather Season" but remember, severe weather and tornadoes can and have occurred in every month. The lesson of living in the tornado belt is the Boy Scout Motto - Be Prepared.