"I woke up to the sound of hail on our roof, lightning flashing, wind howling, and by the time I reached the front door it was still. I knew we had to get to the basement!" Star94 disc jockey Steve McCoy vividly recreated the events of the night before to hundreds of thousands of listeners who awoke Thursday, April 9th, 1998. His Alpharetta home was spared, but other homes in Marietta, Dunwoody, and Suwanee suffered at the hands of nature's most destructive atmospheric phenomena, the tornado.
When National Weather Service Forecast Office employees came to work early on the morning of Wednesday, April_8, 1998, they knew they would be facing a grueling day. Three offices, Knoxville, Tennessee, Birmingham, Alabama and Peachtree City, Georgia had been alerted by the Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Oklahoma that they would be involved in predicting the path of a weather system that developed over Louisiana the day before.
The first bulletins, Hazardous Weather Outlooks, simply alerted the media to the potential of bad weather. Memphis issued one for Mississippi at 4:00 am, Birmingham issued one shortly after 5:00 and Peachtree City issued one at 6:00am. At 2:00 pm the first tornado watch was issued for Mississippi and Alabama covering a large area in the northern two-thirds of these states. Meteorologists were concerned about the high humidity in a surface system creating turbulent weather through convection. West of Birmingham, Alabama the convection the meteorologists were worried about began and the moist air churned upward, forming cumulus clouds that would mature into the violent thunderheads that routinely spawn tornadoes.
This was not a normal early Spring storm. Rather than a few widespread thunderstorms meteorologists were watching serious concentrations of supercell storms. As shift change rolled around at 5:00pm, some of the forecasters were granted overtime to help with the anticipated problems. The first tornado warning was issued for Tuscaloosa, Alabama at 7:01 pm. Unlike a tornado watch, a tornado warning means that conditions are right for a tornado to form and that one may have been spotted by a credible observer on the ground. Four minutes later an F2 tornado touched the ground in Pickens County, Alabama, quickly moving west to Tuscaloosa. At 7:30 the National Weather Service extended the Mississippi and Alabama watch to 2:00 am on April 9th and 6 minutes later the Peachtree City office extended the watch into most of North Georgia. (Note: The National Weather Service calls this the "Atlanta office")
At 7:45pm the first tornado warning was issued for Jefferson County, Alabama and its county seat, Birmingham. This would prove to be the site of the worst damage. At 7:53 pm an F5 tornado, spawned by the same system that touched ground in Tuscaloosa, taking 32 lives, destroying 1000 homes and damaging 1000 more. After another storm touched down in St. Clair County the storms moved into Georgia. First county on the list in was Haralson, where an F1 tornado struck at 11:30 pm damaging buildings and churches. Haralson County lies near the Georgia-Alabama border west of Atlanta, so the Alabama Weather Surveillance Radar 88 Doppler (WSR-88D or NEXRAD) played an important role in forecasting the incoming weather. While the Peachtree City forecasters were predicting weather to the east, members of the Southeast River Forecast Center were watching the Alabama NEXRAD and predicted the tornado that struck near Tallapoosa, Georgia.
Location of the devastation
The storms that struck north of Atlanta were F2, indicating winds below 150 miles per hour, but still very destructive. The first set down in Smyrna in Cobb County and moved west where the tornado hit a number of businesses in the Windy Hill area. According to Weather Channel employees a tornado passed near the Atlanta-based weather forecasting cable channel's home office in Vinings. Chris Volvo lost a half-dozen cars and part of the showroom. Haverty's Furniture was also hit as was a shopping center. A Waffle House and gas station near the car dealership were total losses. The tornado crossed the Chattahoochee River into a lightly populated area of Fulton County before dissipating.
At 12:35 an F2 tornado touched down in the wealthy Dunwoody area of Dekalb County. It was here that the only fatality of the night in Georgia occurred when a 72 year-old man died when a tree fell on his home. Moving east the storms destroyed a heavily wooded residential area near Tilly Mill and Winter's Chapel Roads. The trees, snapped at or near the base, brought down power lines with them and blocked roads for most of the morning. This storm moved northeast to Gwinnett County and damaged a total of 5,000 homes, passing through Norcross, Duluth, and Suwanee. The damage from this cell appeared to be less than those from other storms, but destruction halted traffic in many areas.
The Atlanta Journal Constitution had a problem. In Dunwoody the damage was so intense that reporters could not get to the scene of the fatality. An editor remembered that the AJC's Atlanta Braves beat reporter lived in the area of the fatality. It took him 45 minutes to walk, climb and crawl the two blocks to the scene.
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration the month of April is the worst month for tornadoes in terms of number of deaths. Both May and June have more tornadoes but April has more deaths by a wide margin.
The state of Georgia ranks 13th in the number of tornadoes between 1950 and 1994, but fourth in total inflation adjusted damage over the same years. During that time period 111 deaths and more than 2,600 injuries were attributed to tornadoes in the state.
Other North Georgia Tornadoes
January 1, 1903 -- Gainesville, Georgia is struck by an unusual winter tornado. 106 people die, and property damage exceeds $750,000.
March 13, 1913 -- Rosedale, Georgia is destroyed by a tornado. Nearby Curryville sustains considerable damage.
April 5-6, 1936 -- The Southeast is ripped by storms. Hall County, including Gainesville, is hardest hit, with the death toll eventually rising to over 200.
April 3-4, 1974 -- This series of storms spread across the entire Southeast United States, as far north as West Virginia.
March 27, 1994 -- A "super-cell" of tornadoes rips through much of Georgia, north of Atlanta, destroying towns from the west to the east. Known as the "Palm Sunday Killer Tornadoes" the storms causes extensive damage throughout the northern tier of the state.
March 20, 1998 -- A powerful twister partially destroys two Hall County schools and some structures in White County.
Developed by Dr. Tetsuya "Ted" Fujita (University of Chicago) and Allen Pearson, then head of the National Severe Storms Forecast Center in Kansas City, and sometimes called the Fujita-Pearson Scale. This scale estimates the wind speed based on observable ground destruction. In 1992 Fujita proposed improving the scale because of its lack of detail in rating information for National Weather Service observers.
In June, 2004, engineers at the Wind Science and Engineering Center at Texas Tech proposed the enhanced Fujita Scale. This expanded the rating system, by taking into account building construction and other variations. For example the enhanced scale has categories for hardwood and softwood trees.
Minor roof damage; breaks branches off trees; push over shallow-rooted trees; damage to sign boards. Frequency 29%
The lower limit is the beginning of hurricane wind speed; peels surface off roofs; mobile homes pushed off foundations, overturned or torn apart; moving autos thrown from roads. Frequency 40%
Roofs torn off frame houses; mobile homes demolished; boxcars pushed over; large trees snapped or uprooted; light-object missiles generated. Frequency 24%
Roofs and some walls torn off well-constructed houses; trains overturned; most trees in forest uprooted; heavy cars lifted off ground and thrown. Frequency 6%
Well-constructed houses leveled; structures with weak foundations blown off some distance; cars thrown 300 yeards or more and large missiles generated. Frequency 2%
Strong frame houses lifted off foundations and carried considerable distance to disintegrate; automobile sized missiles fly through the air in excess of 100 meters(109 yds); trees debarked; steel re-inforced concrete structures badly damaged; incredible phenomena will occur. Frequency less than 1%
The scale actually goes to F10 (the speed of sound), however, no known tornado has exceeded F5