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Alabama Tornadoes: This Editor’s Personal Experience

May 9, 2011  - By 0 Comments
Wall cloud approaching.

Wall cloud approaching.

Four years ago my wife and I moved to Lake Guntersville as our ultimate retirement location because it seemed to have ideal factors we were looking for — mountains, lakes, great fishing, mild weather, low taxes, low cost of living and genuinely nice people. This inland location had navigable water to the Gulf of Mexico and even to the Great Lakes. We liked the small town atmosphere away from coastal hurricanes, panicky road clogging evacuations, blizzard, earthquakes or big tornadoes. Well, so much for that plan as we had a front row seat to one of the biggest tornado events of the decade with one of the tornadoes passing 500 yards in front of our windows.

Just like in the movies, on Wednesday morning, April 27, the winds started to pick up, tornado alarms sounded, and debris started flying, including outdoor furniture. The boathouse next to us had the shingles stripped off the roof like a deck of cards, and then big oak trees started toppling over. The lake looked like it was boiling violently as winds in Guntersville reached 130 mph. We could see countless power lines and transformers arcing green and then going dead. Many buildings and trees were okay while others were totally demolished.

Downed trees caused much of the damage.

Downed trees caused much of the damage.

My visual estimate was that at least 10 percent of the power poles and lines were damaged or toppled. It’s now six days after the storm. Although utility crews have been busy putting in new poles and lines, much remains to be done and I’m doing this article on battery power from my car charger.

This tornado event was unusual in that Alabama rarely gets more than one tornado at a time with most being the smaller F-1/F-2 storms. Tuscaloosa got the worst of it with an F-4 that stayed on the ground for 70 miles.

Concrete block walls were no match for the 130 MPH winds.

Concrete block walls were no match for the 130 MPH winds.

This was a TV repair shop in downtown Guntersville.

This was a TV repair shop in downtown Guntersville.

Our county, Marshall County, was lucky with only 10 tornadoes during the 8 hour period. I don’t think any were over an F-2 but Marshall County still had 5 fatalities. Alabama had over 200 tornadoes that day with fatalities nearing 300.

One thing that really impressed me about the people in Alabama is their resilience and willingness to help their neighbors. There was no hand wringing waiting for the government to help. Almost immediately after the first tornado you could hear the sound of chainsaws as neighbor helped neighbor dig out and clear the roads. This helped the city and county get most roads passable within a day.

People helping people.

People helping people.

Local businesses helped also. Within 12 hours T.L.’s Barbeque and our favorite seafood restaurant, Crawmama’s, had a catering service set up in downtown Guntersville providing free meals for the National Guard, emergency workers and anyone who needed a hot meal. Crawmama’s is one of those hidden gems that serve seafood comparable to the best restaurants in New Orleans.

After the tornadoes, NOAA captured ortho imagery of the affected areas using a King Air at 5000 ft. The imagery can be seen at the NOAA website. Pictometry is providing low altitude high resolution ortho and oblique imagery and there are stunning video clips of the Tuscaloosa tornado on youTube.

The first tornado came and went so fast that I really didn’t have much time to ponder the event. However the unexpected surprise was news media reports that we could expect numerous tornadoes during the 8 hours following the initial tornado. The tornado alarms sounded again and again throughout the day and I can tell you from first-hand experience that getting through this was much easier thanks to the location based GIS services of my iPhone. Here is why.

When the power was still on we had the luxury of watching the television news with Doppler radar and all the detailed graphics. Once the power went out all we had were tornado alarms, a portable radio and my lowly cell phone.  The tornado alarms were nerve racking since they went off so often. I later learned that the alarms are linked county-wide so a tornado threat anywhere in the county will cause all the alarms to sound. Radio stations were helpful but it was difficult to form a clear picture of the moving storms.

IMG_1482The iPhone proved to be wonderful. It continued working even after power was lost so we could communicate with family members. From the first power outage until now the cell phone service continued un-interrupted. The service did slow and show weaker cell tower signals as the system switched to battery power and standby generators.  But it did continue to work.

Most important, the iPhone radar mapping application from the Weather Channel provided us with a video loop of weather bands and their path on a Google map so we could see for ourselves how the storms were moving and if we would be affected. This really put our minds at ease most of the time despite numerous tornado alarms.  Throughout the day as we dodged other tornadoes, I thought about all the man-hours I and my colleagues spent in the early ’90s digitizing street centerline data and addresses ranges to build the digital street databases and other maps that are now the backbone of location based services.

I never could get really excited about the tiny screens of smart phones but this tornado event and even more mundane applications such as navigation are making me appreciate these little devices. My iPhone has replaced my cell phone, camera, calculator, notepad, and now my GPS. I liked the navigation and Google maps of my iPhone but many times, such as in DC traffic, it was hazardous looking at the screen. So I was very pleasantly surprised with an application that turns the iPhone into a full featured car navigation system including voice navigation and real time traffic. The MotionX GPS Drive  is one of the hottest selling applications for the iPhone and I’m a convert. I bought a mounting bracket that lets me mount the iPhone on the AC vent of any rental car and I now don’t bother packing my old GPS. The only downside is that it uses up the iPhone battery so I have a 12v adapter to keep it charged when using navigation.

 

That little iPhone and GIS keep making my life better. So for all the hand wringers nearly panicked that their iPhone tracks their location and worried about their privacy, my vote is for more and better location-based services.

Photos: Art Kalinski

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Art Kalinski

About the Author:

A career Naval Officer, Art Kalinski established the Navy’s first geographic information system (GIS) in the mid-1980s. Completing a post-graduate degree in GIS at the University of North Carolina, he was the Atlanta Regional Commission GIS Manager from 1993 to 2007. He pioneered the use of oblique imagery for public safety and participated in numerous disaster-response actions including GIS/imagery support of the National Guard during Hurricane Katrina; the Urban Area Security Initiative; a NIMS-based field exercise in Atlanta; and a fully manned hardware-equipped joint disaster response exercise in New York City. Kalinski retired early from ARC to join Pictometry International to direct military projects using oblique imagery, which led to him joining SPGlobal Inc. He has written articles for numerous geospatial publications, and authors a monthly column for the GeoIntelligence Insider e-newsletter aimed at federal GIS users.

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