Violent weather including possible tornadoes roared across the heart of Alabama on Monday, killing two people and injuring more than 100 others. Searchers went door-to-door calling out to residents, some of whom lived along a path near the deadly twisters that devastated the area last year.
The storms flattened homes, knocked down trees and peeled off roofs in the middle of the night in the rural community of Oak Grove, which was touched by both storms. The area near Birmingham has a history of being a tornado alley going back decades.
In a sign the state has become all too familiar with severe weather, officials had to reschedule a meeting Monday to receive a report on their response to the spring twisters.
As dawn broke, residents surveyed the damage and began cleaning up across several parts of central Alabama. The governor declared a state of emergency.
Oak Grove was hit hard in April when tornadoes killed about 240 people statewide, though officials said none of the same neighborhoods was struck again. The storm his several miles from the twister in the spring.
Amber Butler and her family hid in her sister’s brick home as the storm approached about 3:30 a.m.
“I just so speechless now, I don’t know what to do,” she said.
Butler’s own home was destroyed.
“God Bless our friends and neighbors who have come to help. We’ve lost everything we had,” she said.
Butler lived near 83-year-old Bobby Frank Sims, who was killed when his home was leveled by a tree.
In Clay, northeast of Birmingham, 16-year-old Christina Nicole Heichelbech died, the Jefferson County coroner’s office said. Rescue workers said her parents were injured.
“Some roads are impassable, there are a number of county roads where you have either debris down, trees down, damage from homes,” said Yasamie Richardson, a spokeswoman for the Alabama Emergency Management Agency.
The storm system stretched from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico, producing hail, strong winds and rain. Possible tornadoes were reported in Arkansas on Sunday night.
Jefferson County, Ala., where Oak Grove and Clay are located, suffered the most damage Monday. In April, about 20 people were killed in the county, most of them close to Oak Grove, a sprawling, unincorporated rural area.
The community was nearly wiped out April 8, 1998, by a powerful tornado. That storm spread a wide path of destruction, killing 34 people and injuring 260. The tornado destroyed Oak Grove High School and left what was a heavily-wooded section of the county looking barren.
This general part of Jefferson County has been infamous for destructive tornadoes dating back to the 1930s.
State Climatologist John Christy said there seems to be a general path from central Mississippi going into north Alabama that gets attention for its large number of tornadoes – and their intensity. One theory has to do with the distance from the Gulf of Mexico. The area sits between the warm moist air from the Gulf and cold air from the north.
“It’s the frequency and intensity of the storms that tend to align on this corridor,” said Christy, a professor at the University of Alabama in Huntsville.
In Clay, Laurie Gibbs and her husband awoke to the screaming winds and went downstairs to check on their two teenage sons. A neighbor’s pine tree crashed in the back of their home within moments, punching a hole in the roof, and each of their three cars was smashed by fallen oak trees.
After grabbing buckets to catch the rainwater spilling into the house, Gibbs opened the front door and looked toward the Georgebrook subdivision of brick homes across the street.
“I could see power lines down, but it was dark and raining so hard I couldn’t see much else,” she said. “After a few minutes, I could tell there were houses missing.”
More than a half-dozen brick homes were flattened, leaving a trail of beige insulation, clothes, splintered lumber and siding splattered along a hill.
Stevie Sanders woke up around 3:30 a.m. and realized bad weather was on the way. She, her parents and sister hid in the laundry room of their brick home as the wind howled and trees started cracking.
“You could feel the walls shaking and you could hear a loud crash. After that it got quiet, and the tree had fallen through my sister’s roof,” said Sanders.
The family was OK, and her father, Greg Sanders, spent the next hours raking his roof and pulling away pieces of broken lumber.
“It could have been so much worse,” he said. “It’s like they say, we were just blessed.”
The mayor of Maplesville, about 45 miles south of Birmingham, said a storm came through about 5 a.m., downing many trees and causing major damage to about five buildings.
More than 50 people were in the town’s dome-shaped storm shelter when the winds blew the top of a sweet gum tree, about one-foot in diameter, on to the steel building. No damage was done and no one was injured in the shelter, built about five years ago with a FEMA grant because of past tornadoes.
“The shelter did what it was supposed to do,” Mayor Aubrey Latham said.