The howling wind caused our live truck to sway back and forth, horizontal rain pounded us, and golf-ball sized hail slammed the windshield as if Mother Nature was warning us to turn back now.
It was the scariest moment of my working life, and the first time I put my own safety before the job. In a teary, shaky panic I called to tell my boss I would not be following orders.
I work in a busy newsroom and like all newsrooms across the country when the big story breaks; we scramble to be the best at covering it. Sometimes beating the competition clouds our decision making, especially when safety is at risk.
When tornadoes swept across the south this April, killing hundreds in their path, our Tennessee station went into a frenzy. Producers began working up their ear catching lead ins for the 6 and 11 o’clock newscasts before the first dark cloud even cast an ugly shadow over our region. Reporters like myself lined up for our daily assignments, knowing that it was going to be a long day, maybe even a long night. We’d just learned about the fury tornadoes unleashed on Tuscaloosa, Alabama killing hundreds of people.
But, we live in the mountains of Tennessee, not a very tornado prone area. Our meteorologists had been telling us for days that Wednesday was going to be a very “unsettled weather day” with the possibility of damaging winds and tornadoes. Still no one was quite prepared for what we witnessed. After storm chasing for most of the day with little success, we were told to station ourselves in an area that was expecting severe weather for several hours. My photographer and I watched scary storm clouds roll in and out, bright sun, rain, lightning, and hail all occurring within minutes of each other.
We documented everything, sending in pictures, and calling the station several times for live cut-ins. It wasn’t until my photographer and I received a phone call with our next assignment that I became rattled. Just minutes before that call we were pounded with quarter sized hail and strong winds. The voice on the other end told me a possible tornado had been spotted in a county next to us, that golf ball sized hail was already falling, and we should “head that way.”
I was scared, and every instinct in me told me we shouldn’t go. I tried to express my concern to the assignment manager as my photographer began driving toward the storm. The closer we got, the worse the weather, and thinner my nerves became.
The horizontal pounding rain drove me to call the station again to express my concerns, though this time a little more forcefully. I had a heated discussion with our news director who assured me we should not do anything that we felt would put us in harm’s way, that it was up to us to make the call. I told him I thought it was too dangerous to continue on. Just seconds after hanging up the phone, hail slammed the truck so hard, we were thankful it did not shatter our windshield. The photographer made a U turn and we raced back the other direction. I feel that we were very blessed that night. A couple days later the National Weather Service confirmed that an EF4 tornado touched down just a few miles from where we turned back. By the end of that nail biting day and night at least thirty-four people were dead in Tennessee.
It took the National Weather Service two weeks to survey all the damage across the Volunteer State and publish it’s findings. This process normally only takes a couple days. I had the opportunity to talk with NWS meteorologists at a press conference to discuss the historic tornado outbreak. They admitted to me even they experienced moments of fear.
They used phrases like killer tornado, the big one, super outbreak, and one for the record books when describing what happened on April 27, 2011. I asked one meterologist what he said to his wife when he called home. He said, “I told her this is very serious! Stay in the basement, and keep the phone nearby. I will call you if I need to tell you a tornado is getting close to you or us.”
Heading home late that night I was forced to drive through flooded streets, and around downed trees and power lines, counting my blessings as I pulled into the driveway. I have never seen weather this severe and hope I never experience again in my lifetime. I don’t know if my photographer and I were in any more danger than any of the other crews covering the severe storms that night, but we were the only ones who refused to continue on. I’ve talked with several co-workers since who told me they were terrified too, but it’s the nature of our business to carry on and get the job done.
Nearly fifty tornadoes touched down in our area. April 27th will be etched in my memory for years to come. In the days following the tornado outbreak, I reported in some of the worst hit communities. As I saw flattened homes, vehicles tossed about like matchbox cars, and debris scattered as if a bomb had gone off, I couldn’t help but reflect. I thanked God once again for bringing me home safely to my husband and two little boys.