2011 Tornadoes: A Forecaster's nightmare

Aug 6, 2016

The April 2011 tornado outbreak caused widespread destruction, costing lives and billions of dollars in damage.  Local TV weathercasters helped spread the word on where tornadoes were and where they’re going. But what happens when the weatherman becomes a victim of the severe weather while he’s on the air? APR’s MacKenzie Bates has the story of one forecaster where on April 27th, 2011, the saying the story hits close to home takes on a whole new meaning.

Ask anyone in the TV news business, and they’ll tell you people tune in mostly for the weather.

And, on WVUA-TV, that’s Richard Scott’s job…

Some days it’s hot, some days, there’s rain. Then there was April twenty seventh, 2011…

“I have no idea.  I can’t answer this to this day,” Scott says.  “I had a cold chill running down my spine especially when the tornado got as large as it did.  The tornado appeared to be weakening for a brief amount of time, and then what we call a wedge tornado, a very wide tornado just sat down.  The most scary feeling you can imagine, I had running through my mind and through my body.  Just the feeling that this tornado is going to kill people.”

Oddly enough, Scott had seen this storm coming for days…

“All of our forecast model data over seven days out was showing the exact same scenario,” Scott says.  “The chance for widespread severe weather.  A classic tornado outbreak and that’s really unusual.  Typically we have numerous computer models that kind of disagree with each other.  When you see that consistency and the look of severe weather that is concerning especially in April.”

What hit Tuscaloosa was an EF-4 tornado. That’s a weather term called the  Enhanced-Fujita Scale. It means a storm packing winds anywhere between 166-to-200 miles per hour. 

While delivering his report, Scott noticed the path of the tornado was heading to a familiar sight.  He was living in a house off 16th Avenue in Tuscaloosa, putting home sweet home in the cross-hairs of the twister.

“When I saw what had happened, now this was about ten minutes after the tornado hit, took off towards my house because I knew our director of the TV station was staying there for a while and I couldn’t contact him,” Scott says.  “Cell phones were down.  My fear was that I was going to my house and find him dead.”

That him was his roommate Jonathan Newman.

“I gotta be honest, that was the happiest I’ve ever been to see Richard in my life is when I saw him walking down the road,” Newman says.

We joined Newman at the site where the house he and Scott shared once stood.  The old house is gone and a new one is in its plcae.  Newman works for a television station in nearby Birmingham now. On April 27, 2001 he was just one of those people hanging on for dear life.

“Living here for a few years, I’ve gotten used to there being tornadoes in the area but always either going south of us, north of us, just never really hitting right in the middle of Tuscaloosa,” Newman says.  “So I kind of had this mindset of just it’s not going to hit here.”

Newman says it went from being sunny outside to almost pitch black in what felt like seconds. 

“I run across the house, jump in the tub and as I’m falling in, I grab the shower curtain and that literally is all I had on top of me,” Newman says.  “About five seconds after I fall in the tub, the window in the bathroom goes out.”

The tornado was right on top of the house.

“At that point, That’s when I thought was probably it,” Newman says.  “Because I see the roof lifting off and I think either I’m going to get sucked up through the roof or something is going to come flying in on top of me.  And all I’ve got on top of me is a shower curtain.”

Aside from a few cuts and bruises, Newman knew he was going to be alright. 

Standing in what was once was his old neighborhood, he recalled how not everyone got off lucky.

“All of the houses on this side of the street were pretty much destroyed,” Scott says.  “Amazingly, some of the houses from across the street were barely touched.  Like some of the shingles got knocked off and but like their windows were still intact.  It was just amazing how, like just across the street some houses were almost unaffected.  And then on this side of the street it was complete destruction.”

And even though their house was destroyed, Newman and Scott took solace knowing they were both alive.

“Because it was like, ‘Alright.  I’m glad to see somebody.  Somebody I know, some way I can hopefully get out of there.  Because at that point I felt trapped because I felt like, you know, didn’t know where I could go to get out of here.”     

And if you thought Scott had plenty to worry about back in 2011, 2016 offers a new perspective. 

He’s a dad now. Scott and his wife, Tara welcomed their first child, Parker in September of last year.  Tara Scott says when Richard talks about bad weather and staying safe, he means her and Parker too.

“But now I know we have a safe place to go and I know he’s going to keep us updated,” Tara Scott says.  “If we don’t need to be at the house he tells me well enough in advance to where I can go to my parent’s or a friend’s house to make sure  I am in a safe place.”

It’s been five years since Scott watched his own house be smashed by the tornado. So, as Tuscaloosa recovers, he thinks he is too.

“The scar is slowly healing,”  Richard Scott says.  “And that’s an incredible thing to experience.  I’ve been here since the tornado and to see that change every day, it’s been a heartwarming experience to see that, ‘Hey people are coming back.’  We’re not going to let a tornado get us down.  We’re going to make it back out of this.”