10 Years Later: How WVUA 23’s Richard Scott Lost His House on Air on April 27, 2011
"It takes one tornado, and usually it takes about 30 seconds to take everything you've got, to change your life totally."
Those words of warning come from Richard Scott, the chief meteorologist for WVUA 23 News in Tuscaloosa. When he spoke those words, he said it from experience.
Scott has served as a meteorologist with the Tuscaloosa television station for over 10 years and had actually covered the events of the April 27, 2011 tornado outbreak from the studio inside Bryant-Denny Stadium.
It was an especially harrowing experience for Scott, as he detailed what it was like watching the tornado eventually come over his house, taking every tangible possession he had.
Early the morning of the 27th, Scott had anticipated a large line of storms coming through Tuscaloosa that afternoon. However, in those morning hours, Tuscaloosa had sustained a lot of storm damage – residents were left without power, and several trees were downed.
The National Weather Service had issued rare tornado emergencies, which designate large, life-threatening storms for affected areas.
"We had a bit of a lull period where the sun came out ... Some people thought, 'Hey, it came early, the event's over,'" Scott said. "But the afternoon round was what was supposed to be so severe ... We were trying our best to reach people to warn them what was coming."
Scott said it was especially hard to reach people after the morning round of storms because so many had been left without power.
At about 3 p.m., the first tornado in Tuscaloosa's vicinity touched down over in Cullman. Scott said this was especially troubling for Tuscaloosa, as it continued to prove that every storm that was developing out in east Mississippi and West Alabama would drop a large tornado at some point.
At approximately 4:50 p.m., the tornado was sighted touching down in Tuscaloosa. Scott's immediate thought was the fear of what might happen to the city, having such a devastating storm rip through portions of Tuscaloosa, considering it is such a large population center.
"I'll never forget the feeling of watching the tornado live on our camera," Scott said. "We're not safely 50 miles away, we're watching outside of our rooftop ... I'll never forget the moment we saw the tornado initially touch down – the chill that ran down my back. It got so large so fast ... It went from a small tornado to a large violent wedge within 30 seconds."
Scott begged his viewers to take shelter, knowing that these large tornadoes could kill – absolutely demolishing brick homes down to the concrete foundation. He maintains that if people were not below ground, their chance of survival was low, saying "this is as serious as it gets."
At a point, once the tornado touched down, WVUA 23 lost power to the whole station, completely cutting the signal to their viewers. At the same time, Scott received the devastating news that the tornado had hit his house, destroying everything.
"You just can't prepare for something like that," Scott said.
He had bought the house just 10 months before. He remodeled it with his new fiancé Tara but was suddenly forced to start all over again.
He left the station once the power cut out, drove and parked down by DCH Regional Medical Center, and walked the rest of the way to his house – still in his suit and with his microphone still attached to his lapel. The only thing that helped him recognize that he was on his street was the speed table at the entrance to his neighborhood.
"Literally 10 minutes after the tornado hit, there are people coming out of the rubble, what's left of their homes," Scott said. "The smells were so strong, the sounds of the sirens – it was so eerie, it gives you nightmares just thinking about it."
Scott recounted his neighbors running up to him in tears, giving him hugs, saying his coverage was the last thing they saw before the tornado hit. He described the experience as nothing short of traumatic.
However, Scott told The Tuscaloosa Thread that without power, without running water, in the immediate aftermath with so much confusion and distress, he and his team's weather coverage for some would be one of the most reliable sources of information for keeping people safe and updated.
"It was an odd feeling ... There's nothing I could have physically done to get people to go to their safe spaces," Scott said. "We look back and say could we have done anything differently – messaging, warning ... We did the best we could. All we could do was hope they took the warning seriously."
Scott returned shortly thereafter to the station just in case power returned, and prepared to go back on the air. He said it was then that a strange sensation came over him: "where am I going to go after this?"
Feeling absolutely helpless, he decided to take things day by day. That night, he ended up staying at his fiancé's parents' house near Shelton State Community College and spent the next three months hopping couches. Eventually, he found a new house in Northport.
Despite his excitement and relief, he remembered how he felt stepping into his empty home, and realizing that it was truly time for him to start over.
"I am so blessed ... I didn't know anybody personally that died, but there are so many families that can't say that," Scott said. "I lost my house, I lost my belongings, I lost things that can't be replaced, but life is so much more precious than that."
In the present, Scott still hasn't forgotten the severity of that day, and the last impact it has had on the people that still live in Tuscaloosa. The most frequent question he's asked anytime severe weather is expected for Tuscaloosa, if it will be as severe as April 27, 2011.
"We will likely never experience something on that scale again ... I do look back at what happened. There's kind of a proud moment that we made it to 10 years," Scott said. "It's a sore that doesn't heal very easily ... But we made it through. It's a sad moment in our history where something tragic happened, and we can't forget that."
Across the state of Alabama, 62 tornadoes touched down that day, and 64 people lost their lives in Tuscaloosa. Statewide, 252 people died.
Scott said if there was one thing people should take away from that day, is to take tornado warnings seriously. It only takes one tornado to change your life forever, Scott concluded.
Regardless of its severity, a storm should always be treated as if it would directly affect you. He never wants his viewers to become complacent that way.
For all coverage pertaining to the 10-year anniversary of the April 27, 2011 tornadoes, click here.