Tornadoes hit Alabama

Tuesday , March 18, 2014 - 11:36 AM

Michael Muskal, Richard Fausset

Apparent tornadoes destroyed homes, damaged a prison and injured about 10 people in Alabama on Friday as the South and Midwest braced for what was expected to be a full day of severe weather.

The hardest-hit region was around Huntsville, including Limestone and Madison counties, where the injuries were reported, according to local and state officials. Four minor injuries were reported in Limestone and six in Madison.

"We have numerous homes with minor damage," Rita White, director of the county Emergency Management Agency, said in a telephone interview. "We do have a few destroyed. We’re still compiling the numbers, but there seem to be about 10 destroyed. The reports are mainly about roof damage."

National Weather Service personnel were touring the site in their usual survey to officially determine whether the damage was caused by a tornado or just severe weather. Meanwhile, the county of about 83,000 people was bracing for more inclement weather and damage in the next hours, White said.

Friday’s damage was just the latest in a week of severe weather that has roiled the Midwest and South. At least 13 deaths, more than 100 injuries, and millions of dollars of damage have been reported. The incident was the worst for the area since last year; then, 350 homes were destroyed and nine people died in nearby Madison County, home of the space-flight research hub of Huntsville.

On Friday morning, Dale W. Strong, a 41-year-old Madison County commissioner, headed out to nearly the same tornado path, once again taking stock of the misery left by what seemed to be a rerun.

Strong said the apparent tornado that hit the community of Harvest, Ala., on Friday morning didn’t seem to be as strong as the one that roared through the year before. But it was still plenty ugly.

Numerous homes were destroyed in the tiny community, about 10 miles north of Huntsville. Some of the houses were damaged, and some were totaled. Some people were injured, but there were no reports of deaths.

The losses were too fresh to accurately tally, only to describe: Strong said sturdy concrete power poles 60 to 90 feet high had been toppled, with power lines draped across the road. Roofs were gone. Power was out.

Debris, he said, was "just strewn for miles."

Sparkman High School, the second-largest high school campus in the state, appeared to have lucked out: Everything was more or less fine. But nearby, Strong said, "We did have 18-wheelers that were flipped upside-down."

For Strong, the storm was unpleasant business, but also an accepted fact of life on this pretty stretch of country just south of the Tennessee border. It was certainly no surprise to the four-term commissioner, who was trained as an emergency medical technician and still volunteers at the Fire Department in nearby Monrovia. In 1989, when Strong was a teenager, he was working on an ambulance when a November tornado tore up Airport Road in Huntsville, killing more than 20 people. The private ambulance company that employed him recognized his work that day with a medal of valor.

"I can tell you this right here: My family has lived in this community for eight generations, and it is hard to see your brothers and sisters that you go to church with, that you play baseball, basketball in our community parks with, to have to go through something like this," Strong said.

But he also talked about what had worked Friday. This, he reminded, was one particularly smart community. NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center is in Huntsville, along with numerous important aerospace research firms. Madison County is crawling with rocket scientists.

Its people are aware of the risks the weather brings, and they know what to do. The tornado warning system appeared to have worked well Friday, Strong said, with sirens giving residents fair warning before the touchdown, which he said occurred at about 9:30 or 9:45 a.m. CST.

"We’re an engineering town," he said. "People understand it comes with the territory."


In addition to the damaged homes, the sprawling state prison was also hit, causing significant damage to buildings and knocking out hundreds of feet of fencing and razor wire. But no inmates escaped.

The Limestone Correctional Facility saw extensive roof damage at a training building, a canteen, and two dorm-style prison blocks holding about 250 inmates each, Brian Corbett, a spokesman with the Alabama Department of Correction, said by telephone.

Corbett said extra guards had been called in to help the staff maintain control at the prison, which has nearly 2,400 inmates.

"The situation is under control," Corbett said. "There’s no threat to the general public."

Strong said he had heard reports of injuries at the prison, but Corbett said that no one had been hurt.


(Fausett reported from Atlanta and Muskal from Los Angeles.)


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