The twister that ripped through a small Alabama community during a tornado outbreak in the Deep South this week killed a 39-year-old woman and her 8-year-old son on a street home to generations of a family.
One of dozens of tornadoes triggered by a severe weather front that rolled from East Texas across several southern states for two days, the storm shocked people in Flatwood, a sparsely populated community not far from the Alabama state capital, Montgomery.
In the early morning darkness, family members emerged to screams from shattered houses. Several homes in her community had been hit by falling trees, and a large pine tree destroyed the mobile home bedroom, where a father, mother and son are believed to be sleeping.
“The tree fell in the middle of the bed while they were sleeping. It fell on the woman and child,” family member Norman Bennett said of the victims.
The Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office said the victims were a 39-year-old woman and her 8-year-old son, but did not release their names. A man, the woman’s husband and the boy’s father, was injured and taken to hospital.
Bennett said the man was trapped under the tree and debris and couldn’t see what happened to his wife and child. “He screamed. “Find my baby. Find my baby,” Bennett said.
For a couple in Flatwood, a split-second decision may have just saved them.
Caroline Bankston said she and Tim Wiseman were at home to catch up on the weather news and find out where the Twister was when she looked out the dining room window and realized it was already overhead. They ran to a safer corner when their roof collapsed, burying their sofa under debris.
“We just prayed, prayed, prayed, ‘Please God, please take care of us. Please,’ and he did. You can replace things, but you can’t replace a person,” Bankston said, his voice still shaking. “We just sat there on the couch. Thank god we moved.”
The storm system, fueled by record temperatures, spawned dozens of tornadoes Tuesday and early Wednesday as it moved from east Texas through Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and neighboring states. Tornadoes damaged homes, destroyed a fire station and ripped off the roof of an apartment complex in Mississippi. In Alabama, the same storm system also destroyed a community center, leaving a chaos of downed trees, downed power lines and debris in its wake.
A total of 73 tornado warnings and 120 severe thunderstorm warnings were issued from Tuesday afternoon through Wednesday morning, said Matthew Elliott, a meteorologist at the Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Oklahoma.
Montgomery County Sheriff Derrick Cunningham said a community center in Flatwood on the same street where the deaths occurred was vandalized and search and rescue teams went door-to-door Wednesday to account for all residents.
“We have flipped mobile homes. We have mobile homes that trees have fallen on. There’s a lot of damage back there, a lot of power lines are down,” Cunningham said.
The National Weather Service Office in Birmingham classified the Flatwood storm as an EF-2 tornado with estimated winds of 185 km/h.
Isaiah Sankey, who represents Flatwood as vice chairman of the Montgomery County Commission, expressed his sadness at the lives lost. He promised that installing storm shelters would be a priority.
“When we rebuild, we will have storm shelters,” Sankey said.
Elsewhere, in the western Alabama town of Eutaw, large sections of the roof of an apartment complex were missing, evicting 15 families in the middle of the night, and power lines and trees were “everywhere on the street,” Eutaw Police Chief Tommy Johnson said WBRC TV.
A suspected tornado also damaged numerous homes overnight in Hale County, Alabama, where the emergency director said more than a third of people live in high-risk mobile homes.
“I’ve seen some really nice tethered mobile homes, but they just don’t stand a chance against a tornado,” Russell Weeden, Hale County’s chief of emergency management, told WBRC.
Two other people were injured when the storm ripped apart homes in Caldwell Parish, Louisiana, Sheriff Clay Bennett told KNOE-TV.
The weather service confirmed that tornadoes also hit the ground in Mississippi. Pictures of the damage from Caledonia showed a damaged grocery store, a destroyed fire station and an overturned house, but Cindy Lawrence, director of Lowndes County’s emergency management agency, told WTVA-TV that everyone was unharmed.
Hailstones battered the windows of City Hall in the small town of Tchula, Mississippi, where sirens wailed as the mayor and others ducked for cover. “It hit the window and you could tell they were nice big balls,” Mayor Ann Polk said.
High winds tore down power lines and flooding was a hazard as more than 13 inches of rain fell in a matter of hours in some places. More than 50,000 customers in Mississippi and Alabama were intermittently without power Wednesday, according to poweroutage.us, which tracks power outages.
Meteorologists have been warning of a possible tornado outbreak for days. Elliott, who is coordinating the alerts, said it took a lot of work to break the news and people seemed to take the threat seriously. “It’s a very prone part of the country to tornadoes — particularly tornadoes after dark,” Elliott said.
Record high temperatures in Texas and Louisiana strengthened the storm front before moving to Mississippi and Alabama, weather forecasters said Wednesday.
Shreveport, Louisiana, warmed to 81 degrees on Tuesday; and Tyler, Texas hit 82 degrees in Shreveport, according to the National Weather Service. Both brands broke the old record of 80 set in 1949, the weather service said.
Photo above: The Flatwood Community Center. (AP Photo/Butch Dill)
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