The scary years

Tornadoes were spawned in abundance in Madison County during 1973 and 1974. We lived at 3319 Barton Avenue then. Mom reminded me of an incident I'd completely forgotten. She was driving home from the beauty shop after work–I think this would have been 11/27/1973–and noticed that trash cans were blowing all over the street. When she arrived, Rick and I were huddled in the hall with Gram and Granddaddy. We'd been worrying about her, because there was a tornado warning. She had no idea. 

There were a total of three tornadoes that day in Alabama, and five previously that month. The one we were sheltering from was an F3 that cut across Bob Wallace and Memorial Parkway, perilously close to where we'd lived on Gesman Place at one point. It caused 42 injuries and was on the ground for 14.1 miles.

The next year was even worse. 1974 saw at least 4 tornadoes, although with the Big One on April 3, there were two F5s and two F3s. We had one in Madison County on the 1st. What I remember most strongly about April 3 was my grandmother's prescience. Mom was in Huntsville Hospital (I forget for what, bleeding ulcer perhaps?) and Dad was with her. We were staying with Gram and Granddaddy at the Woodmore Drive house. We'd had dinner at Captain D's, and she kept urging us to hurry up and finish, that the weather would be getting bad. As Rick said recently, “When a woman who grew up in Oklahoma tells you the weather will get bad, you listen.” We watched H.D. Bagley, the WHNT weatherman, on TV and watched the poor radar images. That was the first time I ever heard of a “hook echo.”

The damage was worst in Limestone County, but in Madison, Parkway City, a strip mall (that's now Parkway City Mall) was severely damaged. At the hospital, the patients (including Mom) were moved into the halls. Dad said he saw the tornado from her window. He went off to give blood. It never occurred to me until I read F5: Devastation, Survival, and the Most Violent Tornado Outbreak of the 20th Century  by Mark Levine (a Valentine's Day present from my husband) that the hospital must have been a horrendous scene. Athens and Decatur hospitals were full and turning people away, and that left Huntsville Hospital. I also didn't know Thomas at the time–he was not too far from where the two F5s struck.

The horrific devastation that nature can cause is amazing and unfathomable.

Kawliga, that pore ol’ woodenhead

Tornadoes were not an issue for me, apparently, when we lived on Saundralane Drive. My experience at Dahlia Drive was quite different. We moved there in 1965. Most of my childhood memories stem from this house, where I first discovered comic books, saw giant dinosaurs at far-away Haysland Square (now minutes away from where I went to high school), played kickball and bullied my friends into playing superheroes and Greek mythology characters.

We lived in a split level house on a decent sized lot, at the entrance to Dahlia Court, or “the circle,” as we called it. The lower level of the house was underground, so it made a fine place to retreat when a tornado warning was issued. I believe I have determined that the night we spent in the basement was either November or December of 1967. On Nov. 24, Dec. 18 and Dec. 21, tornadoes were sighted in Madison County. I'm inclined to think this was the Dec. 21 tornado, as it touched down at 7:30 p.m., but it could've been Dec. 18. That one hit at 3:25 a.m., so we could've had watches and nothing happened until early morning. Not sure.

Tornado warnings were much vaguer back then, and if one was announced, you had no way to know if it was at your backdoor or across the county. I remember that Dad dragged a mattress down to the basement (which technically wasn't a basement, but more like a family room), and we sat on it and listened to the radio while the storms raged above us. “Radio” in our house when Dad lived with us meant WBHP, the country music station “on the sunny shores of Pinhook Creek,” where Vic Rumore was the morning DJ. (Apparently it's now a talk/news format station. According to Wikipedia, it was the first AM station in Huntsville.) One of the songs I distinctly remember hearing was “Kawliga.” At the time, I think the song spooked me a little, either that or there was another song that did that I've been unable to recall. We weathered the storm and didn't have any damage, but it was more of a big adventure for Rick and me.

Probably not a tornado, but there was a flood

There were no tornadoes anywhere in the United States on the day I was born. Well, that's hardly surprising, we don't usually have tornadoes in January in Alabama, although according to Significant Tornadoes, there were 62 from 1880 to 1989. My first memory of a storm with damage was hearing my mom say that when my dad was painting the interior of our house on Saundralane Drive, preparatory to our moving in, a storm came up and lightning struck the willow tree in the backyard, knocking it completely down. I always thought it was a tornado, but I don't find that in the records. I think that would've been 1963, maybe. As usual, my grasp on chronology is weak. It was a storm nevertheless.

I've always loved storms. In that same house, the street flooded (1965?) because of a rainstorm, and I remember Rick and I looking out the front window of the house at the kids who lived across the street (who were doing the same thing). A car came down the street (a big old tank of a 50s car) and stalled out because of the deep water. At one point we could actually see water beneath the house through a hole in the floor. I'm not sure why there was a hole in the floor. Maybe it was the air return. Maybe the goats in the attic put it there. (Yeah, goats. Our imaginary friends looked like creatures from Dr. Seuss. And lived in the attic. And yes, Rick and I shared imaginary friends.) [Edit: Mom said we moved out of that house because of the mold from water under it. Rick had really bad allergies, so between the mold and the elm tree in the front yard that he was also allergic to, the environment was killing him.]

According to the records, there was one tornado in Madison County during the time we lived in that house. (I'll correct this when I get a better handle on my personal chronology. I swear, Rick and I have talked about putting together a timeline so we'll know what happened when. From the time I was born until I got married the first time, I lived in 7 different houses. Thus the confusion.) However, for the interest of my reader, an F3 tornado struck Bessemer on March 5, 1963, on its way to Homewood and then Mountain Brook (much the same course tornadoes take today). It destroyed 29 buildings and damaged over 200 in Bessemer.

Next entry, a split-level house makes a good tornado shelter, and for the first time ever, the lyrics to my song about rain, written in the early 70s.

Another Cool Tornado Site

The Tornado History Project has a searchable database and displays storm tracks!

Tornadoes I Have Known

 I feel I have been challenged. Scott said I never post anything here that he doesn't already know. Spurred by that remark and inspired by the bad weather early this morning, here is a list of tornadoes in Madison County during the years I lived there. 

Yeah, tornadoes. I know, it's weird. But tornadoes have been formative experiences in my life. Many of my most vivid childhood memories involve the weather. I was a weather junkie from an early age. During one of my weather kicks when I was maybe 12, I determined, on the basis of the barometric pressure, wind speed, etc. that it would rain later that day. At the time, the sun was shining. I told my brother and his friend Chris Grant about it and they scoffed. Later that day, it did indeed rain, and they were appropriately impressed by my forecasting prowess.

One of my most cherished possessions is the massive (now out of print) tome compiled by the Tornado Project entitled Significant Tornadoes–1680-1991 by Thomas P. Grazulis. It weighs 8 lbs, according to the website, and contains 1340 pages. From that I will begin compiling a narrative of the ones I remember most from childhood.

I obtained a raw list from the Tornado Project website and have at least the dates here. For now I'll stick to the ones in the 60s and 70s, of which there were 18 listed in Madison county. 

June 6, 1961, 3 p.m., F1, 0 dead, 0 injured
March 11, 1963, 5:40 p.m., F2, 0 dead, 0 injured
November 24, 1967, 1:05 p.m., F2, 0 dead, 7 injured
December 18, 1967, 3:25 a.m., F2, 0 dead, 27 injured
December 21, 1967, 7:30 p.m., F1, 0 dead, 1 injured
April 24, 1970, 6:30 a.m., F2, 0 dead, 0 injured
May 19, 1973, 2:40 p.m., F2, 0 dead, 10 injured
November 27, 1973, 6:33 p.m., F3, 0 dead, 42 injured
April 1, 1974, 9:40 p.m., F3, 1 dead, 6 injured
*April 3, 1974, 6:15 p.m., F5, 9 dead, 110 injured
*April 3, 1974, 7 p.m., F5, 5 dead, 110 injured
*April 3, 1974, 9:35 p.m., F3, 2 dead, 3 injured
March 20, 1976, 10:08 p.m., F1, 0 dead, 0 injured
March 20, 1976, 10:22 p.m., F2, 0 dead, 0 injured
March 20, 1976, 10:25 p.m., F0, 0 dead, 0 injured
July 17, 1977, 1:45 p.m., F2, 0 dead, 0 injured

The starred entries are the major storms (up until the more recent huge one on November 15, 1989). More to come.