Limestone County tornado history draws national attention

Limestone County has been in the cross-hairs of the two largest tornado outbreaks in American history.

Posted: Apr 25, 2019 9:09 PM
Updated: Apr 25, 2019 9:36 PM

April in the Tennessee Valley is the height of tornado season. In the cross-hairs of the two largest tornado outbreaks in American history - the Super Outbreaks of April 3rd, 1974 and April 27th, 2011 - was south Limestone County. More specifically, the Swan Creek Manufactured Home Community.

Alabama is now being called the "New Tornado Alley" by some.  Our state now averages more deadly tornadoes than any other in the country.  The dangers are so high, The Washington Post recently broke down some of the deadliest tornadoes in North Alabama.  There’s one thing in common:  Limestone County.

Three of the deadliest tornadoes hit in 1974 and 2011. The 2011 anniversary is this weekend on April 27th.  "Tornado day," as many in the south now call that fateful day in 2011, brought 62 twisters to Alabama in a single day. The deadliest tornado carved a path from Franklin County, Alabama to Franklin County, Tennessee, killing 72 people along the way. The Hackleburg/Phil Campbell tornado grazed the Swan Creek Community at EF-4 strength.

"I remember our son calling us and telling us the devastation that had happened here...because of all the big, beautiful trees it had taken down. Mostly up front by the office and things," Sylvia Avery told me. "There were trees that were tumbled up and there was one RV that was overturned...I guess up by the office somewhere."

Sylvia and her husband barely missed that twister.  They had been staying at Swan Creek, but moved to a different RV park earlier that month.

In the 70s, Swan Creek was known as Lawson's Trailer Park. Before the name change, it made its first mark in the history books when two F5 tornadoes hit within 30 minutes of each other. The Washington Post mentioned the phenomenon earlier this month, on the 45th anniversary of the 1974 Super Outbreak.

On April 3rd, 1974, the first tornado entered Limestone County just after 7 PM.  Lawson's took a direct hit.  Twenty eight people died. Just as rescue operations were getting underway, a second F5 formed near the Tennessee River and followed along a nearly identical track. Eleven people died in the second tornado.

For James Avery, Limestone County's history with violent tornadoes isn't worth leaving his home.

"I don't pay it no mind," says James.  

He remembers the 2011 outbreak well.  After seeing the sky turn dark, he left his home to seek shelter elsewhere. Weeks passed before he could get back.

"I don't ever talk about the tornadoes when they come through," says James. "That's something in the plan...You can't control it no way...Only thing you can do is take cover if you want to, be like me. Sometimes, I just ride it out."

Swan Creek has exactly the place for that - a large storm shelter at the entrance of the neighborhood.  It's open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, unlike county storm shelters that are usually only open in the event of a tornado watch.

"I feel safe, knowing that it's there and I'm able to make that choice...that I can go and that I can go feeling that, you know, I don't have to leave my animals here," says Sylvia.  

As for James, aside from heading to the shelter, he also leans on his faith.  "I know somebody that's take care of me no matter what the storms do."

Swan Creek is still home to a few folks who were living and working there when the tornadoes struck in 1974.  When asked if they wanted to tell their story, they said the events from that day were so horrible, they couldn't bear to talk about it.

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