APISON, Tenn. (WDEF) – Five years ago this week we learned once and for all that tornadoes can follow any kind of terrain. Since there have been so few tornadic storms in the Tennessee Valley, most people felt the mountains were protecting us.
Then came April 27th 2011 – when we learned otherwise. 219 tornadoes occurred that day in the southeast.
One of those hit Apison and Cleveland.
That storm began near Jackson, Mississippi and produced an EF4 tornado that roared up from Catoosa county, hitting Apison and parts of Bradley county.
The folks in Apison did have warning of the storm. It was in the forecast 5 days ahead of time.
“We received advance notice from the National Weather Service,” recalls the Director of Emergency Medical Services for Hamilton County Ken Wilkerson.
But damaging tornadoes coming through Hamilton County was tough to grasp. Before 2011, there is only one other killer tornado on record in the county – that was April 15, 1994.
“Tornadoes of this magnitude are something that you hear about in other places” Wilkerson said.
At 8:55am, the day began with an EF2 tornado in Lookout Valley
“As we shouldn’t, we went to the window to look and see.”
That day, 303 tornado warnings were issued across the southeast, 6 included Hamilton County.
“There was ample warning. We had 15 minutes warning that this thing was coming,” said Bob Colby, head of the Hamilton County Air Pollution Control Bureau and an Apison resident. “We took a direct hit. The house was leveled….And we were very very fortunate to have survived.”
The county responded quickly, activating their disaster plan, opening emergency operations center, staging ambulances, notifying area hospitals.
“We watched them on radar,” Wilkerson recalls. “We watched as almost a train – one would come, you’d see it forming, it would pass through. You’d see the next one behind it form.”
The rescuers themselves were in danger.
“Rescuers jumping into ditches as tornadoes went past.”
Meanwhile, Colby and his family were trapped for a time in a closet where a heavy gun safe fell on them. They were hurt, and rushed to a hospital. But there was another element to that story. An MRI showed that Colby actually had a cancerous tumor on his bladder. It was removed and he remains healthy today.
They built a new and safer home.
“Not everyone has a safe room, but everyone should know where to go in case there is severe weather coming their way,” Colby recommends.
And Wilkerson also says we shouldn’t forget, “The event that happened in 2011 was one that we need to remember – that is has happened before here, and it could happen again.”
Since that day, one tornado has passed through Hamilton county. That was March 2, 2012 injuring 30.