Below is a personal account from a friend who actually rode through the storms on his motorcycle on 4/27/2011.
Tornadoes Came to Alabama April 27, 2011
Jack R. Anderson
I was spending some quality time along the Gulf coast at Bradenton, FLA and decided to ride my motorcycle home to Huntsville, AL on Wednesday April 27. I checked the weather forecast before departing Florida at 5:30 am. Fine weather all the way to Montgomery, where I might begin to encounter clouds, rain, possible thunderstorms. OK, nothing unusual.
I was tired the morning of my departure owing to a couple of confusing days and nights on Anna Marie Island. I stopped at a roadside rest area along route 19 south of Tallahassee and stretched out on a picnic tabletop for a quick nap at mid morning. There's nothing more refreshing than a short stay at the iron butt motel, and I felt a lot better after that. Things went along just peachy as I reached Alabama and rode north through Montgomery and Clanton, heading for Birmingham after 11 hours on the road.
As I road into south Birmingham the sky quickly darkened to foreboding shades of grey, green, and sickly yellow, the rain suddenly began to fall in staccato torrents with the wind bursting, and I could hear the wail of emergency sirens. I sped to the next exit from the highway and sought shelter at the nearest gas station. There, at least one tornado blew through the area, all power went off with a loud bang, and I could hear sounds of destruction all around, followed immediately by people screaming and emergency vehicles speeding everywhere. The young fellow working the counter, upon emerging from beneath it as the winds died down, looked at me in the gloom and asked, “What should I do?” I suggested he use his cell phone to call his boss and make that same inquiry. Shaken, I walked outside, hopped on my motorcycle, and got back on the road to Huntsville.
Although the road was wet and the sky cloudy, I hoped the worst had passed. I hoped in vain. Just north of Birmingham, I recognized the combination of quickly moving clouds beginning to move in a vortex, bursts of hard rain, and the weird fluctuation of atmospheric pressure. The **** was about to hit the fan again! This time the closest haven was an overpass, where I found several 18-wheelers and eight or nine cars huddled about. As I pulled under, trying to remain upright against the force of the wind, I saw a funnel cloud form right over the concrete overpass, and immediately light poles, trees, highway signs, and other large debris began raining from the sky, slamming down on to the road and surrounding area. Draped across my motorcycle attempting to remain on the ground, I feared for my life, as I know others feared for theirs. Power lines came crashing down, hanging precariously from the overpass and laying on the highway in both directions. When the winds ceased and a strange calm descended, the people in cars, seeing that no further passage was possible due to the dangling power lines, maneuvered their cars to turn around and go back to the last exit, which was in sight about a quarter mile back. As I stood and watched these cars speed south in the northbound lanes, I thought I surely was going to witness a horrendous multi-car crash, as these cars racing for the exit the wrong way on Interstate 65 ran into unsuspecting northbound traffic. Fortunately, there was little traffic at that moment and, as several tractor-trailer rigs came up on the exit and saw what was happening, they immediately stopped, blocking both lanes northbound just before the exit. This created a no-man’s land that allowed the panicked southbound drivers to reach the exit, make another U-turn, and proceed up the exit. As it turned out, this mad dash did not have the desired result, as the exit ramp was also blocked and appeared to be heavily damaged. The 18-wheelers and I were now stuck with nowhere to go. After a while I saw several police cars begin to close the interstate and survey the situation. One came up to look at the dangling power lines and left. I realized that when the police took charge of the situation, there would be no escape until all debris was cleared and the road ahead was assessed. After walking up close and looking at the hanging cables, I saw that I could scoot under them and move on to the road ahead. With my heart pounding wildly, and not at all certain this was the right course of action, I got on my motorcycle, ducked and dodged the dangling wires, and lit out once more for Huntsville.
For the next several miles, I was the only vehicle on the road, and that was a good thing. I had to pick my way through downed trees, twisted road signs, light poles, and large chunks of what looked like parts of houses. Had I not been on a motorcycle I could not have gotten through this area of devastation. As I rode out of the devastated area, the road cleared and I began to see other cars and trucks. Great patches of blue opened overhead, the sun appeared, and the road began to dry. I felt relief and a measure of relaxation.
Again, my feeling of calm was short lived. The suddenness with which conditions changed was awesome and terrible at once. As I approached Cullman the sky became a menacing scowl of dark, heavy clouds and strong swirling winds seemingly coming from every direction. I could keep myself upright on my motorcycle with only the most concentrated effort. It was sure I had ridden into the thick of it again and just as sure I must take protective action immediately. I pulled to the side of the road, where I saw the trees lining the road bending and whipping around in a most unnatural way. Stopped where I was I felt exposed and vulnerable and scared ****less, so I made for the next overpass. How I made it I cannot say, my motorcycle and me on it being pushed, pulled, lifted by the wind, slammed around. My mind was blank except for the thought that this may be my final inch. I reached the overpass staring at two tornadoes uprooting everything in their path and violently slamming everything into the concrete abutment and onto the road. I clung desperately to my motorcycle, thinking its weight might help me from becoming airborne. After what felt like forever but was probably less than a minute, the wind subsided and the strange calm again descended. Looking ahead, I saw that on both sides of the road in either direction trees and debris were piled helter skelter across the roadway and median, making it impassable. My only thought was to get the hell out of there and, fortunately, one of my fellow travelers under the overpass was driving a large pickup truck outfitted with a winch. He pulled up to the blockage, hooked up to one of the critical trees, and moved it enough for me to get through. I had lost track of time, mileage, fuel situation, my muscles ached from the tension, and my mind felt numb. I was running on pure adrenaline with the sole intent of getting to my house in Huntsville.
Darkness was now descending and I began to doubt everything I saw. The thought of crossing the long, exposed bridge over the Tennessee River as I approached Huntsville consumed my thoughts and filled me with dread. This concrete bridge spans the mighty Tennessee River close to Decatur, high above the water. The sides are low and it affords no protection from the weather. On a motorcycle, crossing this bridge anytime in a stiff breeze can feel daunting. The thought of crossing it in the dark with tornadoes all around terrified me.
A few miles from the bridge, as I contemplated what I was going to do, once again I saw and felt the by now familiar signals of a tornado close by; strong swirling winds, sudden heavy rain, odd light, atmospheric pressure going crazy. Here we go again! Off the highway at the next exit and down under the overpass, waiting it out and hoping I'll be around when it's done. Because it was getting dark, I did not see the tornado as it roared by, but I felt it and saw the frightening results. Following this outburst, I saw the sky clearing in big patches. This was my chance. I checked my bags and top pack, straddled the motorcycle and sped north to clear the bridge before anything else happened. It doesn't take long to cross that bridge at 90 miles an hour, but it felt like an eternity that night. Once across the bridge I was almost home. No more tornadoes, just wind and rain for the final 30 miles.
The sight of my neighborhood, houses intact, was as welcome a sight as I have seen. The power had been out for the last 100 miles, so all was dark. I walked next door to my neighbor's house to get the latest news. I called my daughter. Shaking, tired, dirty, standing in the dark, I knew I was one of the lucky ones. I learned later as the details emerged just how lucky.
For me this experience became a story, a story of a scared, wet rat seeking shelter from the storm and finally making it home. For many of my fellow Alabamians the story is tragic, the sadness deep. To you I promise not to tell my story as party entertainment, nor to attempt to paint myself as brave or defiant, for I am neither. I felt the terror, I saw the end. My heart and thoughts go out to those whose luck was not as good as mine. For you I grieve.