Tornado warning in Calhoun County
by Star staff
Apr 27, 2011 | 33650 views |  7 comments | 35 35 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Severe Weather - April 27, 2011
James Peoples on his front porch in the Willow Creek trailer park. Bill Wilson/The Anniston Star
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Workers use cranes to help remove a huge oak tree that crashed through a portion of the Victoria Inn in downtown Anniston this morning. Photo: Trent Penny/The Anniston Star
Workers use cranes to help remove a huge oak tree that crashed through a portion of the Victoria Inn in downtown Anniston this morning. Photo: Trent Penny/The Anniston Star
UPDATE -- 7:54 p.m.-- The National Weather Service has issued a tornado warning for Talladega and Calhoun counties until 8:30 p.m.

Areas affected by the warning include Talladega, Oxford, Anniston, Saks, Jacksonville, Fort McClellan.

And earlier warning affected the northern part of the county. Calhoun County EMA officials said a tornado touched down in Webster's Chapel. EMA also reported tornado damage in the Ohatchee area.

Update from 5:52 p.m.

People in western and northern Alabama dealt with tornado warnings for much of the early afternoon Wednesday, and forecasters say even worse weather may be in store for the Anniston area around dinnertime.

“You can expect numerous, numerous supercells later this evening and into tonight,” said Jody Aaron, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Birmingham.

Tornado warnings popped up around the western and northern portions of the state Wednesday, as a strong storm system swept across the Deep South. There were tornado warnings in Lawrence, Limestone, Morgan and Franklin counties. According to the Associated Press, a tornado touched down in Cullman, striking the Cullman County Hospital.

Aaron said the storm cells that produced those twisters probably won’t reach the Anniston area until around 6 p.m. – but they could be even more powerful by the time they arrive.

“The heat of the day could make these systems even stronger,” Aaron said. “You need to be ready for the worst.”

Calhoun, Cleburne, Clay and Talladega counties are under a tornado watch until 10 p.m.

The Red Cross has opened shelters at Oxford Civic Center and Piedmont Civic Center, according to the Calhoun County Sheriff's Office.

The area got a crippling preview of the storm system Wednesday morning, when a fast-moving set of thunderstorms called a “bow echo” whipped through the area at speeds of around 70 mph, bringing winds ranging from 80 mph to 110 mph, according to the weather service.

Calhoun County EMA officials said the area appeared to have survived the first round of storms without any deaths. An EMA spokeswoman said early reports of a fatality proved to be inaccurate.

Elsewhere in the state, at least five people were reported killed by the storms, the AP reported.

Utility problems

Alabama Power said as many as 270,000 were without power across the state as a result of the “bow echo” storms. By this afternoon, many customers had seen their electricity restored. Power had been out this morning in large swaths of the area, including in much of Anniston, Oxford and Jacksonville, and rural areas to the north and west.

Lingering electricity issues were causing problems with water service. The Calhoun County Water Authority said its customers would be without water beginning at 6 p.m. tonight, as Alabama worked to repair service at a water filtration plant. Officials had no estimate on when service would be restored. In Jacksonville, residents were asked to conserve water because power outages had put strain on pumping systems.

Schools caught short

The early round of storms seemed to catch some local school officials off guard. The storms arrived while many buses were picking up students and while staff were on their way to schools. By the time the storms had passed, officials appeared to have decided on an abundance of caution for the rest of the day.

All local schools had dismissed students by this afternoon. Jacksonville State University and Gadsden State Community College also closed early.

Calhoun County Schools Superintendent Joe Dyar said his system would delay the start of Thursday classes by two hours, as several campuses were still without power. Oxford City Schools also planned a two-hour delay Thursday.

Damage widespread

Throughout Calhoun County’s western reaches, trees – their limbs covered in fresh, green leaves – had fallen, smashing homes and cars.

In Alexandria, trees uprooted by the strong Wednesday morning winds were littered across the sides of roads, in residents’ yards and on a few homes. Power lines were also down throughout the area.

Amy Turner, who lives with her husband and daughter on Lowimoore Road, did not realize a large tree had fallen and crushed her home’s front porch until she walked outside this morning.

“It just happened so fast,” Turner said.

Nearby on Gladden Lane West, Peggy Brown was out surveying the damage an uprooted tree had done to the side porch of her house.

“The alarm woke me up at 6:30 a.m. … I got up and walked in the bathroom and that’s when I heard the worst noise you’ve ever heard,” Brown said. “That’s when the tree fell. The wind was shaking the house – I could feel it.”

A few miles away in Ohatchee, the Oak Bowery Baptist Church lost its steeple to the storm, as well as an awning where a church bus was stored. There also was damage to the church’s playground from downed trees. No one was injured.

“Pretty much the steeple was the worst of it,” said Eric Barnwell, chairman of deacons at Oak Bowery. “It actually landed in front of the church.”

In Pleasant Valley, there were numerous trees down, and winds had demolished the dugouts of a softball field at the elementary school.

In downtown Anniston, one large tree fell on the rear of the historic Victoria Inn, damaging the roof and some windows. More trees were down in the neighborhoods to the east, including one at Woodstock Avenue and 14th Street and another on Glenwood Terrace.

West of Calhoun County, the morning storm seemed to wreak even more havoc.

Riverside resident Nora Creek said it looked like a war zone. The storm left her Depot Street neighborhood and other areas lined with trees and downed power lines.

“I have never been so scared in my whole life,” Creek said as she stood outside and looked at the aged pecan tree that rested on the back of her house.

Just off Depot Street, Delissa Henderson stood outside her trailer on Sugar Farm Road, marveling at her narrow escape. She said the storm awakened her around 6:30 a.m.

“I was so scared, and I just had a bad feeling, and something just told me that I needed to get up and get out of my bedroom,” Henderson said. “My 3-year-old daughter and I ran into the living room. Ten seconds later, a huge tree fell in my bedroom right on top of my bed. I am so thankful to the Lord and want people to know there is still power in the blood of the Lamb.”

Riverside Mayor Rusty Jessup confirmed that a portion of the roof at City Hall was damaged, causing some water damage inside the building.

“Some water got into our files,” he said. “Some of our records and archives have been damaged. We have already hired some contractors to do temporary repairs to our roof.”

Trees were overturned, twisted around and blown across homes and buildings in Pleasant Valley following the first round of Wedsday storms. The winds stripped shingles from rooftops and peeled siding and underpinning away from some structures in the community.

Ricky Newton watched as the storm approached his Pleasant Valley home. He said he saw a gray, rotating wind twist the tops of trees away from their trunks.

He and a smattering of others spent the late morning hours Wednesday clearing the grounds of the Pleasant Valley Holiness Church. Some church members sat on the steps nearby and exchanged storm stories.

“It just got real dark and I heard the roaring,” Pleasant Valley resident Brenda Smith said. “When I heard that noise I knew it was something bad.”

Brad Creel also worked to clear trees from the church grounds and swapped stories on the church steps. He told a reporter and some of the other church members that the storm had characteristics akin to tornadoes.

“I can’t say it was a tornado, but it did have some rotation to it,” Creel said. “The trees were turning around and around.”

Several people at the church said they heard a roaring noise and one of them, a teen standing near the church steps, said the winds shook his family’s mobile home as it approached. His mom, Tracie Hubbard, said she and her family tried to flee to the church basement nearby, but by the time they dressed the storm was gone.

In the wake of the morning storms, the sun shown bright and the winds blew small bits of fallen limbs and leaves in a circular motion across the parking lot of the church as children rode two-wheeled scooters across its slopes and into the lawn. The air smelled of fresh-cut timber and in the distance the buzz of more chainsaws could be heard as people at neighboring homes gathered to remove fallen trees and more debris from yards and rooftops.

Just down the road large pieces of sheet metal were displaced in a field of tall, wind-whipped grass. A little further down the road, a dozen cars were parked in the front lawn of Rod Littlejohn. His friends and family were helping him clear two large trees which he’d watched blow over atop his porch roof.

“I couldn’t believe it,” Littlejohn said. “I was standing at the front door and just saw them coming through the house … I didn’t know what to do really. I was just in shock.”

People with similar stories and scenes of toppled trees and damaged roofs could be seen throughout the community. The storm also struck and demolished a small building at the Pleasant Valley softball field. Officials said that Pleasant Valley was among the hardiest hit communities.

Preparing for more

Gov. Robert Bentley this morning declared a state of emergency as Alabama braced for more storms.

National Weather Service forecaster John De Block advised residents who live in manufactured housing to find a safer place to wait out the storms. He noted that all the Alabama deaths from the April 15 storm outbreak were deaths of people in manufactured houses.

“People who live in manufactured houses, whether they’re single- or double-wide, should find a safer place to stay once they hear about a watch,” he said. “Don’t wait for a warning.”

Patrick McCreless reported from Alexandria and Ohatchee. Laura Johnson reported from Pleasant Valley. Gary Hanner of The Daily Home contributed reporting from Riverside.

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