After losing 4 family members in storm, new radars give Phil Campbell tornado survivor hope

Chief Meteorologist Kate McKenna spent a few days out in the community talking with folks who have noticed a lack of high-quality radar data.

Posted: Oct 7, 2020 9:18 PM
Updated: May 4, 2021 10:59 AM

Phil Campbell resident Judy Evett survived the EF-5 Phil Campbell-Hackleburg tornado on April 27th, 2011. 

"That is just the scariest feeling...within just a few moments, your house is gone and you look up and you're seeing the sky," Judy said.  

The tornado raked across the town of Phil Campell, packing wind as high as 210 mph. It was the deadliest tornado in Alabama history.

"The TV was on and it said you've got so many minutes...I think they told me 20 minutes...I started calling my daughter, couldn't get ahold of her."

Judy's daughter, Patricia, was a second grade teacher at Phil Campbell Elementary. She'd spent a good part of her day calling parents, telling them to pick up their children due to the threat of severe weather. Patricia laid down for a nap, tired from caring for her students. She likely never heard about the violent tornado headed her way.

Judy says, "So I went to the door and I heard it and I looked out my front door...and I didn't see the (makes tornado swirling motion)...I saw just the big part of it...and the roar...I knew that I didn't have time."

The tornadoes on April 27th were moving fast - between 45 and 70 mph.

"It was right on us, no time for nothing."

After the tornado, Judy got the news.

"I lost my mother and my sister, my son in law, and also Patricia," said Judy.

They were four of the 72 lives lost in the tornado.  

On a day like April 27th, large, long-track, violent tornadoes aren't missed by radars. They're seen from miles away, with well-defined rotation and debris signatures. However, the data we had to rely then provided new radar images every 4 to 6 minutes. For a tornado that's moving 60 miles per hour, that's covering a distance from Research Park Blvd to Memorial Parkway without a new radar scan.

The WAAY 31 StormTracker Early Warning Radar Network changes that. With three radars covering all of North Alabama from the Shoals to Huntsville and Decatur, to Guntersville, we've eliminated any gaps in radar coverage, providing live-real time data as severe weather approaches.

Now, we can get a complete 360° scan in one minute.  That's a full 4 to 5 minutes faster than the National Weather Service radar sites. It's all in an effort to track storms long before they reach your area, alerting you even earlier to the threats heading your way.

This not only means we able to see circulations low to the ground with weak, spin-up tornadoes, but we'll also be tracking any large, violent tornadoes minute by minute at street level.

Judy says, "I'm very thankful...very, very...I cannot express that enough...that we're going to have more coverage because it is important about knowing when to take cover and I honestly think that people now, with what we've gone through with these tornadoes will probably listen more closely than they did at that time, that long ago."

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