Butler County, Alabama Tornado
April 15, 2011

Today day started out like many others - it was a Friday and if you're a professional cameraman you sleep in because you don't have a regular job - LOL.  Actually I was in the living room messin with the new Roku box and figured out how to get a full HD weather underground radar loop on my huge 55 inch HD TV.  Whoa, I was in doppler heaven.  No more lizard or progressive insurance commercials to watch!  It turns out that the Storm Prediction Center had posted a moderate risk for tornadoes just to my north near the AL/FL border.  As I sat there and marveled at the beautiful jumbo size radar loop it dawned on me that supercells were firing just north of Mobile AL.  Shoot, I am way behind the eight ball here!

I made a bee line to the gear room. I found an old laptop with StreetAtlas 8 from 2003 running on it, grabbed my still cam bag and headed out the door. My new video cam wouldn't be here till Monday so the Canon 5D2 was going to have to work double duty on this trip. There wasn't much time to do the usual prep and run down the checklist. I could always figure out what I forgot when I saw a tornado right?

I had a good road north and made it to the FL/AL border.  I called Jeff Gammons in South FL and asked if he could watch the radar for me because in rural Sweet Home Alabama you cannot get internet data most of the time and sometimes not even a cell phone signal.  Some folks won't even chase in hilly wooded terrain because you can't see that wedge on the other side of the tree line and I don't blame them.

I made my way up to Greenville, AL on I65.  They call it Greenville because well everything is Green.  If you want to live in a beautiful peaceful no stress town then Greenville is for you.  I got back on the phone with Jeff and he recommended heading west on highway 10 to Beatrice.  There was a supercell moving up from the SW and that was my target.  Along the way I ended up on a dirt road that eventually ended at someone's trailer deep in the woods.  I guess that "dead end" sign  a mile back was right after all.  Like I said, I was running StreetAtlas 8.  I snaked my way over to Beatrice and found not much of anything.  Beatrice is a small little town but they did have a fire dept. and I asked the guy there if he had internet so I could see the radar loop.  He said he was the Emergency Operations Coordinator and that if there was a threat his waki talki radio on his hip would go off as it was a direct link to the Weather Service.  Also, he had a phone backup.  The nice gentleman said the warning was for 1 county west of Beatrice that they were in the clear.  About that time I got another update from Jeff and he said if you really want to get close then head over west a few more miles.  Who doesn't want to get close?  So I went for the big metropolis of Hybart.  As I dashed for my car, I heard the emergency management guy's phone ring and I heard him say, "Oh it is?" 

Hybart is absolutely nothing.  When I got there it was 1 stop sign on two perpendicular roads in the middle of nowhere - that's it and to make matters worse - trees everywhere - I mean those really tall beautiful Sweet Home Alabama pine trees!  Not good for spotting tornadoes though.  I drove up northeast a few miles to Camden and got a rare doppler radar image.  Damn!  I'm out of position to the north with hail on the way.  The supercell built up a bit more to the east I guess.  I decided to risk getting in the hail in order to get in the money shot spot - the rain free slot on the east side.

I made my way to Awin and got in the rain free slot and filmed the rotating wall cloud at 3:47pm 1/4 mile from me.  No tornado yet but it was really spinning wildly and that lightning was zapping all around me as I was outside the car filming.  It crossed highway 10 moving NE.  I decided to have another go at it and headed down the road a few miles and jumped on I65 toward the northeast.  Just outside Greenville, I filmed the wall cloud as the tornado sirens went off.  There are reports of a tornado about the time I shot this footage but I cannot confirm from where I was.  Those sirens were really blasting my ears good - they were actually painful.  The amazing part to me was the interstate traffic was totally oblivious to the approaching danger.  I climbed up a hill and maybe they didn't have the view I did.  I shot this photo with a 17-40mm lens at 4:05pm

So I followed this supercell up the road a few miles and took this iphone shot at 4:09pm as it crossed the road in front of me.

I then continued on to Fort Deposit and exited east (see map).  The supercell cycled down so I made a big 70 mile circle from Panola to Rutledge then back to Greenville.  This was a mega tornado day and storms were firing again to my southwest north of Mobile.  Jeff Gammons called me and advised there was a new tornado warned supercell moving toward the same area that I filmed the first one.  Imagine that!  Jeff was watching the high res radar from WeatherTap and relayed some additional guidance data from the NWSO Mobile that said a tornado was on the ground and the path had it crossing highway 10 at 5:53pm.  I had to go through downtown Greenville and all 3 red lights (see this is why you want to live in Greenville).  I made it to "the spot" with about 5 minutes to spare.  Only trouble was those Sweet Home Alabama pine trees.  I had trouble finding a clear area with a wall cloud or worse bearing down on me.   I could see it between the cracks in the trees.  I later found out a tornado had touched down in Bultler Springs 2 miles SW of me. 

I finally found an open flat field with a good view and observed a huge wall cloud 1/4 to 1/2 mile away coming right at me.  I don't know about you but I can't shoot good video from inside a car -I like to get out where I can move around and steady the shot on a tripod.  The photos and video really don't give you that since of cracking lightning, crazy inflow, and rotation you see.  This was all coming straight for me.

Here is the radar sequence courtesy of WeatherTap.  I had taken a photo with my iphone so my position was GPS tagged.  To give you some scale, it's just short of 2 miles from Saucer to Butler Springs. 


This reminded me of a game of chicken.  Of course I was going to bail but when you're getting good video at what point to you relocate?  I saw a small tornado spin down to my left and said ok, if it goes left of me I'm good!

I kept my eye and camera on that "little" tornado because I knew another even bigger one could spin up in no time.  I recall a lady drove by me and stopped.  She walked over and said, "Is that a tornado"?  She's was pretty scared.  A few other scared folks pulled over where I was and figured they would just "hang with the storm chaser" until all this past by.  Just then an "I ain't stoppin for nothing" trucker goes by me and I desperately point in front of me towards the tornado/wall cloud.  He was going to drive right into it.

I collapsed the tripod and tossed it in the car (yes, threw it in and didn't care how it landed) then headed after the tornado.  It was definitely cycling up and I wanted to stay with it.  1/4 mile down the road that trucker had stopped  and I saw the tornado cross right in front of him.  I mean it was just 100 yards in front of him.  I Didn't get a shot of it as the darn cam was still locked on the tripod.  I did finally manage to get it free and took a few shots as the rest of the wall cloud moved overhead.  Photos taken at 5:56pm on highway 10 eastbound toward I65

I could see between the tall pine trees the wall cloud was consolidating but I just couldn't find an open spot to shoot.  A few miles down I saw 3 cop cars pulled off the road in a flat open area.  I knew immediately what they were looking at.  I pulled over and started filming.  At 6:01 I filmed this.

At 6:06pm it turned into this

I was shooting slightly up hill so I didn't get the ground level action but in this terrain I was lucky to get these shots.  I made my west to I65 (again) and headed northeast and filmed the wall cloud again at 6:27pm

After I took this shot the supercell cycled down so I decided to head back home to Pensacola before it got too late.  You can see the video here on Jeff Gammons' stormvisuals.com  site.  All in all today was really exciting and a big thanks to Jeff for the excellent radar analysis.  The dude is good.

Not to be confused with Butler County, Alabama -  the City of Butler, Alabama, further west near the MS/AL line, had their own tornado and good friend Greg Nordstrom, a meteorology professor at Mississippi State University was shooting some incredible footage with students in tow.  Check out his pics/video at HurricaneChaser.net  Greg was also one of the few storm chasers that managed to get into a whooper of a storm - Hurricane Charley.

Jim Edds

Back to homepage ExtermeStorms.com