Ten years ago, on April 27, 2011, Noah Stewart – then an 8-year-old living in Pleasant Grove – was one of more than 60 children treated in our Emergency Department as part of a widespread outbreak of tornadoes throughout Alabama.
Now 18, Noah is a freshman at Troy University and is a member of the Sound of the South marching band drumline. We caught up with Noah about his experience that day. Experts said one of the reasons he survived a tornado striking his home was because he was wearing a baseball helmet. At the time, that was a novel concept. Today it’s a standard part of severe weather preparation.
“The first thing I remember about April 27, 2011, is there being a tornado warning and my mom telling me to put on my baseball helmet,” he remembered. “At that point, I got a little worried, grabbed the stuffed animal my girlfriend had given me and went to our designated safe place, my parents’ walk-in closet. My dad got home from work and we, my parents, my sister Haley and I, all took shelter literally minutes before the tornado hit.
“I remember losing power, the whistle of the wind and then a very, very low rumble. It sounded like a train, getting louder and louder the closer it came. In an instant, the house exploded, and we were all sucked out by the tornado. The experience was like being swallowed by a huge wave in the ocean; I couldn’t tell up from down or right from left – I was lost. It was over as quickly as it began except that I was about 50 yards from where I was only seconds before, now laying in a field of debris against the twisted remains of a tree stump. My parents and sister landed in different locations, but they all crawled to me. There was an immediate calm after the storm, but we soon noticed everything we owned was gone. In that moment it didn’t matter because we all survived and so did our dogs, Jack and Cody. My mom and Haley were taken by ambulance directly to the hospital. I was placed on the remains of a broken door. My dad and I were carried in the back of a pickup truck to a triage location several blocks away. Dad and I were separated when he was transported by ambulance. Several hours later, I was sent to Children’s. I was wet, cold and alone without my family but the doctors, nurses and staff were amazing. They made me feel safe and comforted me as they stitched and bandaged my cuts and bruises.”
Noah was treated that night by Drs. Mark Baker and Michele Nichols and a host of other staff.
“I wish I knew the names of each person that helped me that night,” he said. “Children’s befriended me and allowed me to be a part of several events like the Regions Classic and the dedication of the Benjamin Russell Hospital for Children. This gave me an opportunity to tell my story and about the importance of protecting your head by wearing a helmet during a storm. I had a reunion with the ER doctors, nurses and staff on the one-year anniversary of the tornado. I am unable to visit on this anniversary as I will be in Troy but my admiration and appreciation for the doctors, nurses and staff of Children’s is as strong today as it was on April 27, 2011.
“Thank you all so much for what you did for me that night and what you continue to do for the children of Alabama and throughout the world. Just as I told you on the one-year anniversary visit, you guys are my angels and I will always appreciate the care and support you gave me. You are truly heroes! Because of Dr. Bakers’ research on the use of helmets as protection during tornadoes, many lives have been saved and the use of helmets during emergency weather events is widely practiced and encouraged by life safety professionals throughout the United States.”
Is your family prepared for severe weather? The 2021 tornado season is off to a deadly start. Already this year, twisters are blamed for the deaths of more than 200 people in the US.
“Children are at risk during tornadoes because of their relatively large heads,” Dr. Baker said. “Noah’s helmet helped protect him after he was thrown high in the air. We also found two more children who were protected by infant carriers when the tornado hit their homes. Helmet use and getting in a safe place can make a big difference when violent weather strikes.”
Have your safe place planned as part of a disaster plan. During a tornado, the best bet is to lay low. The basement is the best tornado safety shelter if available; if not, have an alternate place to seek shelter quickly when necessary. If you’re outside when a tornado hits, seek cover in a safe building or in a ditch, using your hands to protect your head and neck. Families who live in a mobile home should talk to neighbors or the park owner about tornado safety options.
- Have a portable radio (with new batteries) on hand as part of your tornado safety plan. In the event of an emergency, someone needs to listen and be aware of the two types of reports given when weather conditions are right for a tornado: A “tornado watch” means that a tornado is possible. A “tornado warning” means that a tornado has been sighted; people who are in its path should go to their tornado safety shelter immediately. A local or state map will help you visually follow the path of the tornado when listening to radio reports.
- Have a helmet designated for each member of your family in your safe place. The most common injury related to tornados is head injury, and doctors believe helmets can prevent the majority of head trauma during severe weather. Baseball, bicycle and football helmets are all good examples of protective head gear and should have a well-fitted chin strap to keep the helmet secure.
- Put together an emergency supplies kit. The emergency kit should include everything that might be needed during or in the aftermath of a tornado, especially if power is lost or water sources are affected. Bottled water, flashlights, batteries, prescription medicine, a first aid kit, and snacks or non-perishable food for the family are essential components of the supplies kit. Make sure the kit is easily accessible in the event it’s needed. Include notepad and pen in your kit if you are worried that your child might be anxious or frightened while executing your disaster plan. Having him or her write a journal entry on the experience of preparing for a tornado or inclement weather helps your child overcome feelings of helplessness and will also provide an interesting record of events for the future. Also, based on your child’s age, you may be able to assign him a task or two to help him or her feel more in charge of the situation. Something that doesn’t require much supervision is ideal; tasks such as testing all the flashlights and replacing batteries as needed, putting together snack bags for family members, or even occupying younger children while you are working on preparations. Giving your child some responsibility will make them feel more secure and help reduce their anxiety about the chaotic nature of the storm.
- Moving lawn furniture and trash cans out of the storm’s path and removing dead limbs from trees in the yard can be a life-saving tornado safety precaution. Even small items can become dangerous when propelled by high winds. Make sure to move these items several hours before the storm arrives.
- Set up a disaster plan with extended members of your family. Tornados typically strike during late afternoon and early evening, but they have been known to touch down in the middle of the night. Families should decide ahead of time which family members are responsible for calling the rest of the family to warn them and to provide them with updates as part of the tornado safety checklist.
- If tornado sirens are sounded, it usually indicates that a tornado warning has been issued by the National Weather Service and you need to get to your “safe place.” If you happen to be outside and the sirens go off, do not panic. Find a culvert pipe, a ditch, or a low-lying area. Lie flat, cover your head and get to safety as soon as the storm has passed. In the event of severe weather, the sirens will sound when there has been damage equal to that is similar to that of a small tornado. This damage may include downed trees, power lines and property damage.
For more information on this and other children’s health and safety issues, please visit childrensal.org.