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A look back at the May 18, 1995 Tornado Outbreak

Prior to the 18th, the month of May 1995 had already been a busy and somewhat violent month for severe weather across the country. Significant tornado events, including multiple F3 and F4 tornadoes overall, had already occurred on the 6th-7th, the 9th, and the 13th of the month. On May 17th, the National Severe Storms Forecast Center office in Kansas City (what would become the Storm Prediction Center that would relocate to Norman, OK a few years later) had been expecting a significant tornado outbreak to occur across portions of the south central Plains, and a rare High Risk of severe weather had been hoisted across portions of Oklahoma. A strong F2 tornado did occur in portions of Woods and Alfalfa Counties in the northwest part of the state, but the severe weather event for May 17th overall did not meet expectations. That would change in a big way as the storm system moved eastward into the Mississippi, Tennessee, and Lower Ohio Valleys the next day.

By the morning of May 18, 1995, a surface low was consolidating between southeast Kansas and central Missouri and would later move into far southern Illinois by late afternoon. A warm front extended eastward of there to just south of I-70 in the Ohio Valley, and a trailing cold front was advancing out of Oklahoma into Arkansas and eastern Texas and moving eastward through the day. In the mid to upper-levels a positive tilt shortwave trough was shifting into the Mississippi Valley with a strong mid to upper level jet stretching from north Texas into the Tennessee Valley. In the lower-levels a 35-45 kt 850mb low-level jet was situating itself over the Tennessee Valley by mid to late afternoon, helping in not only advecting higher low-level moisture into the area, but also increasing wind shear over the warm sector of the storm system. Upper-air balloon soundings across the area showed an unstable air mass already in place that morning, with CAPE values observed over 1000 j/kg, and the atmosphere only destabilized through the day with temperatures climbing through the upper 70s and into the 80s and dewpoints between the mid 60s and lower 70s leading to CAPE values as high as the 2500-3000+ j/kg range by late in the day. The atmosphere was primed for a significant severe weather event over the Tennessee Valley that day. The Storm Prediction Center issued a substantial Moderate Risk (what is currently our Level 4 of 5 risk on the system we have in place now) across a large part of the Lower Ohio Valley, the Tennessee Valley, and down into north central areas of Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, and over into portions of the Carolinas. There was likely some reservation on the forecast desk because of the previous day not meeting expectations and the tilt of the upper trough not being negative tilt that MAY have kept the forecasters from going High Risk, but the Moderate Risk still meant that a serious severe weather and tornado day was expected.

As a result of that setup, a significant severe weather outbreak, with multiple strong to violent long-tracked tornadoes, occurred from portions of Illinois and Indiana down into north Alabama, and there were even tornadoes reported as far south as southeast Texas and southern Louisiana! The most violent tornadoes of the day would happen in southern middle Tennessee and north Alabama, however.

(image courtesy of the Lawrence County TN EMA through the NWS Nashville website)

Shortly before 4:00 PM, a violent F4 rated tornado would touch down near the Deerfield area of Lawrence County, TN and track east-northeastward through the Ethridge area before lifting near Campbellsville in northwestern Giles County, TN. The violent, long-tracked tornado was on the ground for 29 miles and was responsible for 3 deaths and 33 injuries. Here is an account of information about the tornado courtesy of the NWS in Nashville:

"STORM DATA (Lawrence County): The tornado touched down near the Lawrence/Wayne County line near Deerfield and lifted near Campbellsville in Giles County. Two people were killed while outside their trailer in the extreme western part of Lawrence County and a third person was killed while inside a house near Deerfield. Thirty-four houses, 16 mobile homes and one business were destroyed. Ninety-eight houses, three mobile homes and two other buildings were damaged. The tornado pulled corn stalks that were two feet tall out fo the ground and destroyed 6 TVA steel high-tension-wire towers. Three of these towers were never found. A cancelled check from Ethridge was found in Cannon County, some 90 miles away. Seventy-five to 100 people were evacuated in Ethridge because of downed power lines.

STORM DATA (Giles County): Over 40 building suffered structural damage to them. A few trees were knocked down. A man was injured in Liberty Hill as he sought shelter in his camp trailer. Eight power poles were blown down.

SHAMBURGER (2015): NCDC and Storm Data incorrectly list the path location of this massive, major tornado, which was significantly corrected based on radar data and the narrative in Storm Data. In addition, NCDC and Storm Data incorrectly include the Giles County portion of this tornado twice, as well as rate the Giles County portion as F0 despite the significant damage, and the erroneous second Storm Data entry was removed. Finally, the injured man in Giles County was not included in the total number of injuries for this tornado, and was added into this entry."

Shown to the left is a view of the supercell as it was producing the F4 tornado near Ethridge, TN was seen from the original WLX radar installed back in 1987. This radar was scanning from the studios in Lawrenceburg. Also shown on the radar image is another intense supercell over eastern Lauderdale County in Alabama that would go on to produce the other violent tornado of the day, an F4 tornado that would strike portions of Limestone and Madison Counties, and come to be known as the "Anderson Hills tornado".

(images courtesy of Crandall McKee and Jerry Overcast by way of the NWS Huntsville website)

The F4 tornado would first touch down just northwest of Athens, Alabama around 5:33 PM and then track eastward through Limestone and Madison Counties. Below is a detailed account of the tornado's track courtesy of the NWS in Huntsville, AL:

"The tornado first touched down at 5:33 PM approximately three miles northwest of Athens, just east of Alabama Highway 99. The tornado moved across Alabama Highway 127, then across I-65 near the interchange with US Highway 31. From there, the tornado strengthened as it continued east, crossing Alabama Highway 251, where it destroyed 13 mobile homes at the Oakdale Mobile Home Park. Here a person received major injuries from the tornado and died later; this was the only human fatality caused by the storm. Around this time, a Tornado Warning was issued for Madison County to give residents on the northwest side of the county an opportunity to take cover; tornado sirens were activated at 5:43 PM, one minute after the warning was issued. Meanwhile, the tornado began to move slightly north of east, moving across Mooresville Road and crossing through the Copeland community near the intersection of Copeland Road and East Limestone Road. It continued to strengthen as it crossed over Limestone Creek and approached the Madison County line. Overall in Limestone County, 35 buildings were damaged or destroyed, and 26 mobile homes were destroyed. Around 9,500 customers lost electricity in the county, where damage was estimated to be $1.5 million. Aside from the aforementioned human fatality, one cow died when a large tree fell on it.

The tornado crossed into Madison County around 5:50 PM on Love Branch Road, just north of the Yarborough Road intersection. It continued an east-northeasterly path across Carroll Road, Old Railroad Bed Road, and Wall Triana Highway, crossing just south of Harvest Elementary School. At 5:52 PM, Madison County Fire dispatch reported that the tornado was on the ground near Harvest. It crossed Fords Chapel Road before taking a direct hit on the Anderson Hills subdivision along Alabama Highway 53. At this point, the tornado was at F4 intensity and the subsequent survey would also reveal evidence of it having multiple vortices. A total of 39 well-constructed houses in the subdivision sustained major damage, and 21 were destroyed. The Piggly Wiggly along Highway 53 also received damage. At 5:54 PM, the Madison County Sheriff's Department confirmed the tornado had crossed Old Railroad Bed Road and Alabama Highway 53. As a result of these reports, tornado sirens were reactivated in Madison County one minute later. The tornado continued east-northeast making a glancing blow to the Huntsville Dragway before crossing Quarter Mountain Road and Bollweevil Lane on the northern face of Quarter Mountain. Next it crossed Hammond Lane (where is caused major damage to a few two story brick homes), Beaver Dam Road, Beaverdam Creek, and Pulaski Pike. It moved over Beaverdam Creek a second time at Mount Lebanon Road as it moved into the Meridianville area, then across Patterson Lane. Shortly after 6:00 PM, the tornado crossed US Highway 231/431 at Steger Curve - around Brier Fork bridge. Here, substantial damage was done to a cotton gin and a large farm house was spun off its foundation.

From the highway, the tornado continued slightly north of east, tracking basically along Steger Road to near its intersection with McCollum Road. It moved across farmland, then crossed Moores Mill Road just south of Moores Mill School (now known as Lynn Fanning School). Several windows at the school were shattered. East of here, the tornado caused damage on the south end of the Timberwinds subdivision before crossing the Flint River between Meridianville and New Market. At 6:13 PM, a Madison County Sheriff's deputy radioed that the tornado was passing over his car on Butler Road. Also at this time, a Tornado Warning was issued for Jackson County. The tornado continued east of here causing structural damage along Arnold Road and Noles Drive before crossing Mountain Fork. It then moved across Sharon Johnson Park, causing mostly tree and minor structural damage before crossing Winchester Road in New Market. At this point, the tornado path became more easterly."

Above is a radar overview of the tornado outbreak across the Tennessee and Lower Ohio Valleys. The violent tornado outbreak of May 18, 1995 serves as a reminder to our area (as does May 27, 1973's violent tornado in central Alabama) that the spring tornado season carries through May in Tennessee and Alabama, and major severe weather can and sometimes does happen this time of year. It's not a matter of if tornadoes of this intensity will strike our area, but when. We have had tornadoes of this intensity, and stronger, in portions of our area since that day in 1995, and we will have them again. We must all have a severe weather readiness plan for ourselves and our families and be ready to take action so that we can be safe when severe weather threatens the Tennessee Valley.

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