Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Joppa - Arab Tornado 2/16/95


Birmingham Nexrad 2/16/95 at 5 a.m. when a Tornado Warning was issued for Marshall County.

At 4:59 a.m. on February 16, 1995, an F3 tornado touched down three miles west of Joppa in extreme northeast Cullman County. It traveled through the town of Joppa, crossed Alabama Highway 69 and moved into Marshall County, just southwest of Arab, at 5:06 a.m. The tornado moved across the southern side of Arab at 5:08 and crossed over U.S. Highway 231. It finally dissipated near Browns Creek on the western side of Lake Guntersville after being on the ground for 14 miles. Six people were killed and 130 were injured. One death occurred in a house and the other five occurred in mobile homes. Five of the deaths were in Marshall County and one was in Cullman County.

A total of 157 homes were destroyed (77 in Cullman and 80 in Marshall) and 12 businesses (6 in Cullman and 6 in Marshall) were destroyed. More than 40 commercial poultry houses were demolished and at least two small trailer parks were destroyed by the tornado. The roof was ripped off Amberwoods Garden Apartments and the tornado also tore through the Joppa Elementary School.

The New York Times reported that the tornado struck with "virtually no warning". That was rather misleading. Around 4:25, lightning knocked out operations at the Huntsville NWS, including radar. Thus the Birmingham NWS was pressed into action for the Huntsville office's County Warning Area. At 4:55, the NWS Birmingham issued a Severe Thunderstorm Warning for Cullman County, four minutes before the tornado touched down west of Joppa. Noticing signs of rotation, they then issued a Tornado Warning for Marshall county at 5:01 a.m. Unfortunately, the Huntsville NOAA Weather Radio transmitter was also knocked out, so the warning message was never sent out over NOAA Weather Radio. Combine that with the fact that the tornado occurred in the early morning hours, around 5 am, with many people still asleep, and it is easy to see how people missed the warning.

Today I contacted Brian Peters, who was the Warning Coordination Meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Birmingham at the time. Here are some of his memories of the event:

"I recall there were two thunderstorms moving along parallel to one another right along the boundary between the Huntsville warning area and the Birmingham warning area. As I recall the Huntsville office went down due to a lightning strike which took down their radar but they were able to notify us. The storm that produced the Arab-Joppa tornado was just about to move into Marshall County from Cullman County, so when we issued the (tornado) warning we went with just Marshall County....this was one of those unfortunate events with everything happening at almost the same time."



Story from WHNT regarding what happened when lightning knocked the NWS Huntsville:






Huntsville television station WAFF revisited the tornado in an article in 2005:

"We started to the basement, but we didn't make it to the basement, it pretty much destroyed our house," Charlie McClendon, the tornado survivor, said. McClendon's house and 150 homes were destroyed throughout Arab and Joppa. The tornado leveled buildings and lives. One hundred and thirty people were injured, six killed. "I saw him, I got him out of the rubbage," said McClendon, Marshall County District One Commissioner. He was talking about his son in law, David Price. David died when they're mobile home was tossed in the wind. David's wife was pregnant with their first child, Will. He's now nine, and never knew his father."


Dan Satterfield's live coverage of the event for WHNT 19:






According to the Associated Press, the dead included a six year-old girl. A firefighter said that his rescue team found a one year-old baby, unhurt, under two trailers. One couple's A-frame home was lifted from its foundation, carried 40 feet, and dropped on a trailer. The couple clung to their bed and escaped serious harm.

Despite public outcry about the warning process that resulted in part from the Joppa-Arab tornado, the NWS Huntsville office was closed December 2, 1997. However, after a tremendous amount of pressure from people in North Alabama and U.S. Representative Bud Cramer, Huntsville would again have its own NWS Office. This tornado event was often cited as a reason the Tennessee Valley needed to have its own National Weather Service Office again.



Brindlee Mountain Amateur Radio Association (BMARA) at the National Guard Armory in Arab

In the aftermath of the Joppa Tornado of 1995, the Cullman County Emergency Management Agency began installing warning sirens in Cullman County as funds became available from local governments and through state and federal grants. The first siren at Joppa went on-line in February 1998.

Two other tornadoes occurred in Alabama that day. At 3:32 a.m. an F1 tornado touched down 6 miles east of Hamilton in Marion County, damaging five homes and destroying six chicken houses. It was on the ground for six miles. At 5:28 a.m., the same storm that produced the Joppa-Arab tornado produced an F2 tornado that traveled 12 miles from Marshall County into Dekalb County. Three people were injured. Ten homes were destroyed, 40 homes were damaged, and 30 chicken houses were damaged in this tornado.

Jim Cantore's coverage on TWC:



James Spann, Bob Baron, and Jay Prater's coverage:




Sources:
Meteorologist Brian Peters, NWS Retired
NWS Huntsville
NWS Birmingham
Bill Murray at Alabamawx.com
Iowa Environmental Mesonet Archives

WAFF
SFGate.com
Brindlee Mountain Amateur Radio Association
Cullman County EMA

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