BIRMINGHAM, Ala. – For Tom Sanders, it’s the void left by the death of a cousin and the man’s wife, killed when a tornado mowed through a placid Alabama valley. To Markedia Wells, it’s the stolen innocence of her sons, who still get nervous anytime it starts raining. Darryl Colburn laments a lost way of life in his hometown, which was all but leveled in seconds.
Waves of tornadoes pummeled the Eastern U.S. over four days in the spring of 2011, killing more than 320 people in six states, including about 250 who died in Alabama on April 27 of that year. A decade has passed, but time has been unable to erase the pain or replace the losses inflicted by the terrifying storms.
Homes and businesses were rebuilt and new trees have grown; empty seats around dinner tables were filled as babies were born and a new generation came of age. Yet there’s still a sense of absence, a lingering feeling of sorrow, in communities where so much was lost so quickly.
“I don’t know if it’s a day to remember, but it’s a day you can’t forget,” said Colburn, the mayor of tiny Hackleburg, where 18 died in an EF-5 twister with winds estimated at 210 mph (338 kph). The same twister hit nearby Phil Campbell, where a granite monument at the center of town honors 27 who were killed.
To mark the anniversary, Gov. Kay Ivey ordered flags lowered to half-staff on Tuesday, which she proclaimed a statewide day of remembrance for a “horrible event that has impacted the state of Alabama forever.”
Storms that began in eastern Texas mushroomed by the time the line reached Mississippi, where one twister was so intense it scoured 2 feet (0.61 meters) of dirt from the ground. More than 60 tornadoes then struck Alabama, including one that was captured on video as it decimated the city of Tuscaloosa, and storms continued as far north as New York state.
Another major tornado outbreak had killed more than three dozen people across the South about two weeks earlier, and a spring of pain got even worse two weeks later, when an EF-5 ripped through Joplin, Missouri. About 160 people died there.
The government funded construction of hundreds of residential safe rooms and community storm shelters following the outbreak, still one of the deadliest in U.S. history, and meteorologists improved forecasting systems. One study suggested better ways of communicating weather threats through live TV, including the constant presence of maps on screen so viewers can understand where dangerous storms are located.