Eye on the sky: Teen meteorologist survived April 27, 2011, tornado

On April 27, 2011, I huddled in a hallway with my son as an EF4 tornado passed within a half-mile of us. At the first sound of wood cracking, my plan was to throw myself on top of him, shielding him from whatever the wind unleashed. Ninety miles away in Smithville, Mississippi, another mother stood in front of what was left of her house. Patty Parker had chased the mile-wide EF5 tornado from nearby Amory, where she was the executive director of United Way, to Smithville. When live power lines and debris made driving impossible, she abandoned her car and ran toward home in high heels. She arrived to find the place in shambles. Her husband, Randy, had been home with their children, Chloe and Johnny, when the tornado struck. She screamed her husband’s name, fearful that all three were dead. The Parkers’ story is one of several told in “What Stands in a Storm,” a book about the April 2011 tornado outbreak published in 2015. It’s a beautiful piece of writing by Kim Cross, editor at large for “Southern Living.” It’s engaging because it’s well-researched. It’s heartbreaking because it’s real. No matter how many times I read the numbers — over 200 tornadoes recorded in a single day, 62 of which touched down in Alabama — I still struggle to comprehend the scope of the disaster. The Smithville tornado killed 23 people and injured 137 others in 40 minutes. The damage path was over 37 miles long, stretching from Monroe County, Mississippi to Franklin County, Alabama. Randy, Chloe and Johnny Parker watched the massive cloud bear down on them from the back deck before taking cover in a hallway. At the last second, Randy Parker heard a man’s voice tell him to move, and he ordered his children to get in the bathroom. “If we had stayed in the hallway, we would have been torn to pieces,” Parker told a local reporter several weeks later. Minutes before he found himself in the middle of an EF5 tornado, Johnny Parker sent out an email alert to family and friends signed up for his daily weather dispatch — “Get to a safe place NOW!!” Johnny had been tracking this particular storm for almost a week but had been monitoring the weather since childhood. When he was 4, an apple tree in his family’s front yard toppled during a storm, narrowly missing the house. The experience left him with an insatiable appetite for weather knowledge. The Weather Channel’s Jim Cantore was his idol. Johnny accepted that he would never be an on-air meteorologist because of his cerebral palsy and the speech impediment that came with it. Instead, he embraced forecasting. The year of the tornado, he started a private weather company, Parker Weather Service, and printed business cards that identified him as “Master Meteorologist,” a nod to his love of Jedi. Two years later, Cantore and famed ABC 33/40 meteorologist James Spann were among the 1,000 subscribers of his daily weather emails. In the fall of 2011, Cantore drove two hours from Atlanta to meet Johnny and to present him with his own Weather Channel jacket. In January 2013, Johnny and his family came to Birmingham to appear on an episode of Spann’s online show “WeatherBrains.” The man with the most famous suspenders in the state was mostly speechless as Johnny painstakingly recalled what he had seen and heard.

“I have been doing this professionally for 34 years. I have never been in the middle of a tornado — my home, my neighborhood. I don’t know what you feel like, but I’m so sorry you had to go through that,” Spann told Johnny. On April 28, 2011, our son’s first birthday, Zac and I walked downtown to survey the damage. Ninety miles away, Patty Parker searched through the remains of her home on her son’s 17th birthday and found his gift — a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration T-shirt. Today, two sons in neighboring states celebrate their birthdays, and their mothers pray for good weather. Jennifer Cohron is the Daily Mountain Eagle’s features editor.