On February 16, 1995 at 4:59 a.m. an early-morning F3 tornado touched down three miles west of Joppa in northern Alabama. It squarely hit the towns of Joppa and Arab on its 14-mile course.
Six people were killed and 130 were injured, five of those deaths in mobile homes.
A total of 200 structures were damaged or destroyed by the twister, including an apartment complex roof and the Joppa Elementary School. One thing that made this tornado unusual was a sudden right turn along its path, not common for a half-wide tornado, although it does happen.
The New York Times reported that the twister struck with “virtually no warning”, suggesting the Weather Service was asleep at the switch, but that’s not really what happened.
Lightning knocked out operations, including radar, at the Huntsville National Weather Service office (which covered the affected area) about half an hour before the tornado hit. So the Birmingham NWS moved into action to monitor the Huntsville office’s coverage area, and issued a Tornado Warning about the time it touched down. The low-level radar signature from the Birmingham radar was not as clear since the radar was farther away and the radar beam sampled higher levels within the storm. This probably hindered the response.
The Huntsville NOAA Weather Radio transmitter was also knocked out, so the tornado warning message was never conveyed over NOAA Weather Radio after it was issued.
It was a “perfect storm” of events disabling vital equipment and not NWS negligence that led to fewer people getting the warning.
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