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Huntsville residents look back on devastating 1989 tornado

On Nov. 19, 1989, an F4 tornado ripped through Huntsville during rush hour, killing 21 people and causing more than $200 million of damage.

Posted: Nov 15, 2020 9:43 PM
Updated: Nov 16, 2020 12:09 AM

On Nov. 15, 1989, a tornado ripped through Huntsville during rush hour, killing 21 people and injuring nearly 500 others.

The National Weather Service estimates that the tornado caused nearly $250 million of damage that day.

More than 30 years later, the deadliest tornado in Huntsville’s history has left a mark on nearly everyone who was here at the time and it continues to be part of their lives.

“It’s something that, anyone who’s a Huntsville native, you talk about the storm of ‘89,” Alana Henley said.

Henley was only nine then, but she said one of her most vivid childhood memories is sitting on Airport Road as the F4 tornado barreled towards her family.

“We were heading south and my mom looked to the right as we got to that light as it was turning yellow and she could see the funnel cloud lowering over by where the landfill is and everything and made the snap judgment to run the light,” Henley explained of the move she believes may have saved her life.

Over on Dobbs Drive, Karen Fratesi remembers digging through the rubble of her childhood home searching for her parents.

“They had written on the front of the house with spray paint, ‘We’re OK, we’re at the Floyd’s,’ which is neighbors down the street, but it was pitch dark and I couldn’t see it so I had no idea. So I was literally shoving through rubble looking for them.”

Standing on the corner where the house once stood, she said it was hard for her to come back for a long time.

“It’s still probably one of the most significant experiences in my life,” Fratesi explained. “It was like my whole childhood kind of blew away that day.”

For many who lived through that day, it serves as a reminder.

“It’s just that instinct of fear that kicks in anytime there’s a storm and you can’t really explain it to people who weren’t here in ‘89 or who weren’t here in 2011, but it’s real,” Henley said.

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