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   April 2020's Tornado Count Was Among the Most On Record, But Is Still Dwarfed By 2011
   

Tornado Safety and Preparedness

How This Young Man, His Roommates and Their Dog Survived the Tornado That Demolished Their House

By Ally Hirschlag

May 12 2020 02:38 PM EDT

weather.com

   Before April 27th, 2011, Steven Johnson thought he was practically invincible. He was 22, had recently graduated from the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa and moved off-campus into a four-bedroom house with three roommates and a dog. Johnson was planning on going into the marines, so he worked out twice a day, in the early morning and mid-afternoon. But on the morning of April 27th, he was awoken 15 minutes before his 5:30am alarm by a loud thunderstorm. Aside from being slightly annoyed by the disturbance, he didn't pay it much mind, and started going about his day.

   The early morning storm certainly didn't prepare him for the massive tornado that would tear through his home later that day.

   That EF-4 tornado was one of 350 that ripped across eight states over three days in late April, 2011. 324 people died during this historic tornado outbreak. April 27th, though, was considered the deadliest 24 hours of tornado activity in 86 years.
   <img class="styles__noscript__2rw2y" src="https://s.w-x.co/util/image/w/gettyimages-134078189.jpg?v=at&w=485&h=273" srcset="https://s.w-x.co/util/image/w/gettyimages-134078189.jpg?v=at&w=485&h=273 400w, https://s.w-x.co/util/image/w/gettyimages-134078189.jpg?v=ap&w=980&h=551 800w" >
   Tornado damage in Birmingham, AL.
   (Getty Images/Niccolò Ubalducci Photographer - Stormchaser)

   Over the last 50 years, the number of tornadoes has increased in the South, distorting the typical "Tornado Alley" of the Plains states toward the southeast. The increasingly active stretch from Louisiana to Georgia is now known as Dixie Alley. As a result, Johnson says, Alabamans have perhaps gotten a little too used to them. He even has a memory of being in college, hearing the tornado sirens and watching his teacher close the windows and carry on with class.

   “There are tornados that come through there all the time," he says. "It just seemed like crying wolf with the sirens."
   <img class="styles__noscript__2rw2y" src="https://s.w-x.co/util/image/w/gettyimages-827829790.jpg?v=at&w=485&h=273" srcset="https://s.w-x.co/util/image/w/gettyimages-827829790.jpg?v=at&w=485&h=273 400w, https://s.w-x.co/util/image/w/gettyimages-827829790.jpg?v=ap&w=980&h=551 800w" >
   (Getty Images/Dakota Hillhouse)

   Up until that point, he'd never been directly impacted by a tornado, so he was somewhat more cavalier. He went for his second workout around 2:30 in the afternoon, but while he was there a University of Alabama student came by and told him there were tornadoes in the area. When the gym asked everyone to head down to the basement to seek shelter, Johnson opted for a different plan.

   “Being the rebellious, invincible 22-year-old I was, I reluctantly walked downstairs, looked over to my left, and I saw the doors to the parking lot. So I went and got my car and went home," recalls Johnson.

   When he got home, his roommates were tracking the storm on the news. He noticed several tornado icons appeared to be flanking Tuscaloosa in a V pattern. There was one coming right behind the V though that particularly concerned him.
   <img class="styles__noscript__2rw2y" src="https://s.w-x.co/util/image/w/screen_shot_2020-05-13_at_2.32.00_pm.png?v=at&w=485&h=273" srcset="https://s.w-x.co/util/image/w/screen_shot_2020-05-13_at_2.32.00_pm.png?v=at&w=485&h=273 400w, https://s.w-x.co/util/image/w/screen_shot_2020-05-13_at_2.32.00_pm.png?v=ap&w=980&h=551 800w" >
   NWS map of the tornado threats from Tuscaloosa to Birmingham during the April, 2011 super outbreak.
   (National Weather Service)

   He and his roommates kept watching the storm coverage over the next couple hours, mostly laughing off the possibility of getting hit by a tornado. "One of my roommates looked at this utility closet we have in the center of the house and said, ‘If one comes, I’m jumping in there!’"

   Little did they know just how important that offhanded comment would become.

   Suddenly, it started to rain really hard, harder than Johnson recalls ever seeing in his life. He remembered his car was parked under a large tree, so he decided to run out and move it out of the driveway and into the street. Soon after, he and his roommates started to see video coverage of the tornado on TV near landmarks that they recognized. When it reached a McDonald's that Johnson knew was only about three miles away, he ran outside into the middle of the road to see if he could spot it.

   "I was standing outside and it was bone dry. It was not raining anymore," recalls Johnson. "So I looked up at the sky, and I saw very low level, fast-moving clouds in one direction. Then I turned behind me, and saw very low level, fast-moving clouds in the opposite direction. I did not know what to make of what I was seeing. I turned to go back into the house, and behind our house was a giant grey wall coming at us. It seemed like it took up the whole sky."
   <img class="styles__noscript__2rw2y" src="https://s.w-x.co/util/image/w/screen_shot_2020-05-13_at_2.49.48_pm.png?v=at&w=485&h=273" srcset="https://s.w-x.co/util/image/w/screen_shot_2020-05-13_at_2.49.48_pm.png?v=at&w=485&h=273 400w, https://s.w-x.co/util/image/w/screen_shot_2020-05-13_at_2.49.48_pm.png?v=ap&w=980&h=551 800w" >
   Screenshot of video footage of the tornado that hit Johnson's house
   (Weather.com)

   Johnson raced towards his house, then stopped and ran back out to take one more look. He just couldn't believe what he'd seen. At that point, he could see actual debris flying around the tornado, and that made it real for him. He ran inside, told his roommates, and they immediately started pulling stuff out of the utility closet so they'd all fit. At the last minute, Johnson grabbed the couch and pulled it against the flimsy plastic doors of the closet.

   Soon after, their glass windows began to shatter. Then, as Johnson says, "all hell broke loose."

   Their whole kitchen blew in. The couch in front of the utility closet was swept away as if it weighed nothing. He remembers looking through the closet opening and seeing the ceiling being peeled off. The men got in the crouch position with their hands over their heads. He remembers praying and screaming.

   In the middle of it all, their dog got away from the roommate holding him and ran out into the mayhem.

   "It was the first time in my life that I thought there was a better chance that I was going to die than live," he says.
   <img class="styles__noscript__2rw2y" src="https://s.w-x.co/util/image/w/pic_4_0.jpg?v=at&w=485&h=273" srcset="https://s.w-x.co/util/image/w/pic_4_0.jpg?v=at&w=485&h=273 400w, https://s.w-x.co/util/image/w/pic_4_0.jpg?v=ap&w=980&h=551 800w" >
   The utility closet post-tornado
   (Steven Johnson)

   When the storm had passed, the utility closet was mostly standing, but had crumbled somewhat onto the young men. Even with its plastic sliding door, the closet's three brick walls had kept it mostly intact.

   "We would’ve 100% died in any other room in the house," says Johnson.
   <img class="styles__noscript__2rw2y" src="https://s.w-x.co/util/image/w/pic_3_0.jpg?v=at&w=485&h=273" srcset="https://s.w-x.co/util/image/w/pic_3_0.jpg?v=at&w=485&h=273 400w, https://s.w-x.co/util/image/w/pic_3_0.jpg?v=ap&w=980&h=551 800w" >
   Their kitchen after it was blown in.
   (Steven Johnson)

   A transformer had blown into their living room. Random cars had been dropped into their backyard. When he went to check on his room at the end of the hallway, there was no hallway there, nor any room — just piles of rubble and open sight lines for miles.
   <img class="styles__noscript__2rw2y" src="https://s.w-x.co/util/image/w/pic_2_0.jpg?v=at&w=485&h=273" srcset="https://s.w-x.co/util/image/w/pic_2_0.jpg?v=at&w=485&h=273 400w, https://s.w-x.co/util/image/w/pic_2_0.jpg?v=ap&w=980&h=551 800w" >
   What was left of Johnson's room after the tornado hit
   (Steven Johnson)

   As they walked around their now-decimated neighborhood, the roommates checked in on a few neighbors and tried calling their families. It took a while to get cell service, but eventually Johnson found out his sister, who was currently attending the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, was safe.
   <img class="styles__noscript__2rw2y" src="https://s.w-x.co/util/image/w/pic_5.jpg?v=at&w=485&h=273" srcset="https://s.w-x.co/util/image/w/pic_5.jpg?v=at&w=485&h=273 400w, https://s.w-x.co/util/image/w/pic_5.jpg?v=ap&w=980&h=551 800w" >
   Johnson surveying the damage to his truck which surprisingly didn't move at all during the tornado.
   (Steven Johnson )

   Soon, the area by what was left of their house was flooded with ROTC and first responders looking for survivors.

   One of Johnson's roommates' fathers came to get the young men who were all eager to leave the area. "I think what we were really worried about in the immediate aftermath was whether another one was coming, because at that point, there would've been nowhere to hide" says Johnson.

   Later that evening, they received a bit of good news: a neighbor called saying they'd found their dog. "That was the biggest win that we had that day," recalls Johnson.

   In the nine years since he survived the tornado, Johnson's moved around quite a bit. He went to New Orleans for grad school, then moved to Houston, Texas, and finally New York City where he works as a VP at an investment bank. However during the pandemic, he's actually been staying with his family back in Alabama. It's the first time he's been home since the 2011 tornado outbreak, and he's already seen two tornado warnings, one of which was part of the tornado super outbreak that hit over Easter weekend in April.
   <img class="styles__noscript__2rw2y" src="https://s.w-x.co/util/image/w/9b3a0062-edit.jpg?v=at&w=485&h=273" srcset="https://s.w-x.co/util/image/w/9b3a0062-edit.jpg?v=at&w=485&h=273 400w, https://s.w-x.co/util/image/w/9b3a0062-edit.jpg?v=ap&w=980&h=551 800w" >
   A home that was totally destroyed in Soso, Miss during the 2020 Easter weekend outbreak.
   ( Weather.com/Julie Dermansky)

   Now, Johnson takes precautions. He keeps a bag with helmets and blankets. He's scoped out an interior, sturdy room where he and his family could go if a tornado were imminent. After all, he firmly believes that it was knowing they were going to shelter in the utility closet that saved them precious time when he and his roommates needed it most. Johnson's also glad his hometown seems to be taking tornado preparedness a little more seriously now.

   "They’ve put up tornado sirens since then," he says. "They weren’t there before."
   The Weather Company’s primary journalistic mission is to report on breaking weather news, the environment and the importance of science to our lives. This story does not necessarily represent the position of our parent company, IBM.

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