Exclusive Account of Wednesday's Tornado Outbreak

May 3, 2011; 7:10 AM ET
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An American flag hangs over the rubble from the devastating tornado that struck Concord, Ala., on Wednesday, which is now the second-deadliest tornado day in U.S. recorded history. (AP Photo/Wynter Byrd)

Jonathan Case, from Toney, Ala., gave an exclusive interview to AccuWeather.com about his close encounter with one of Wednesday's powerful EF-4 tornadoes.

The tornado, described as a "monster" by Case, came less than a half of a mile from this northern Alabama meteorologist's home at roughly 4:45 p.m. CDT Wednesday.

Case is thankful to say that the tornado spared his home and his neighbors. Pieces of insulation were blown on his roof, but not a "single shingle is missing."

The worst damage he saw from the twister occurred only a few tenths of a mile north of his home. He saw "trees splintered in half and homes completely damaged with several that just have foundation and bricks left."

The damage path was "at least a half of a mile wide, but concentrated to a few yards."

Damage from this tornado was consistent of with an EF-4 twister, according to National Weather Service storm survey crews. The tornado killed at least 11 people in Alabama's Limestone and Madison Counties.

Case reports, "The wind was actually calm ahead of the tornado, but then we saw trees bending [as the tornado approached]."

Case and his family bolted themselves into their tornado safe room to ride out the storm. Case admits he "got nervous" when he saw the storm cloud.

The Case family spent between 4:30 p.m. and 7:15 p.m. occasionally in and out of that tornado safe room.

Even though the strongest tornado passed through at 4:45 p.m., the "training supercells" that followed prompted additional numerous tornado warnings.

"Those powerful thunderstorms continued to unleash hail, heavy rain, gusty winds and intense cloud-to-ground lightning."

The Case's tornado safe room, a Texas Tech F5 rated shelter built by Tornado Masters of Alabama, is completely comprised of stainless steel and bolted into a concrete slab in their garage.

"On our storm shelter, each bolt is designed to withstand 8,000 lbs. of pressure, and with a total of 6 bolts into our garage concrete slab, that should secure the shelter quite well," Case said.

The Case family was motivated to build the room after seeking shelter in a stairwell at 4 a.m. as a severe thunderstorm that had earlier spawned a tornado passed over their home. That was during the 2008 Super Tuesday tornado outbreak.

A storm shelter in the front yard of Junior and Jeannette Wiginton of Hackleburg, Ala., helped protect their family from Wednesday's tornado touchdown that destroyed their home and much of the town, as photographed Friday, April 29, 2011. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

The 4 foot by 4 foot by 6 foot room is large enough for a "family of four to squeeze in," according to Case. "It got stuffy at times, but I felt safe."

What made Case uneasy was that he "couldn't look up anything" since the power was out. Case would have been able to otherwise use his meteorological knowledge and make his own assessment of the impending tornado danger.

Without power on Wednesday, Case and other residents were not able to receive tornado warnings from the internet or television stations.

After the EF-4 tornado passed through, radio stations lost power and were not able to report warnings. By the early evening, "tornado sirens weren't going off due to power outages."

Case stated, "We had to trust the weather radio, which proved to be the most critical source of information."

Case listened to the weather radio for the warnings, then looked at an atlas to see the location of the towns the warning was referring to.

Case also had cell phone service, so he was able to connect with his college roommate (a fellow meteorologist) to get vital information.

Case and his neighborhood actually lost power at roughly 11:30 a.m. from the severe weather that preceded the EF-4 tornado. As of Sunday afternoon, Case and his family were still sitting in the dark.

Case reports that the day began with a squall line rattling his neighborhood between 5 a.m. to 6:30 a.m. CDT. These powerful thunderstorms prompted the day's first tornado warnings.

That severe weather prompted officials to delay the start of school for two hours, but Case and his wife decided to keep their daughter home due to the impending danger.

Then, officials canceled school when a second line of storms rolled through at midday. Despite that, Case reports that "most kids could not leave until 2:30 p.m. anyway due to the bad weather."

Finally at 7:15 p.m., Case "declared all clear for my family since I saw clearing off to the northwest." His assertion was validated when he felt cooler and drier air at 8 p.m.

In the days that have followed the tornado, Case stressed that "the community outpouring has been tremendous."

Neighbors whose homes were not struck by the tornado had grills out and supplied drinks for those in the neighborhood whose homes were damaged.

"It started with a few tables and a grill. Now, as my minister stated, 'there is more bottled water here than at Wal-Mart.' They just even had a spiral ham on the grill."

The National Guard also dropped off pre-packaged meals. Dozens of portable toilets were delivered, but not until two to three days after the tornado struck.

Case's neighborhood is no stranger to tornadoes. His neighborhood was built after the "Anderson Hill Tornado (an F4 from May 1995) cleared trees."

Being a meteorologist, Case also understands the power and dynamics behind tornadoes. Case is currently a research scientist with ENSCO, Inc., working on the NASA SPoRT contract.

SPoRT is a project to transition unique NASA observations and research capabilities to the operational weather community to improve short-term forecasts on a regional scale.

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