Severe weather rocks the Southeast

Several reported dead and hundreds hurt

Author: Trent Aric, Meteorologist, taric@local10.com
Published On: Jan 23 2012 06:14:40 PM EST   Updated On: May 11 2012 11:30:12 PM EDT
Severe weather moves through Southeast U.S.
CLAY, Ala -

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

Knowing this community's history of tornadoes, Jhan Powers gets nervous anytime violent weather rolls in. While her house was spared this time, a tornado demolished nearby mobile homes -- all of which were just a short drive from a path of destruction cut just last year by a deadly twister. 

The unincorporated community of Oak Grove was hit hard in April and again Monday, though officials said none of the same neighborhoods was struck twice.  "I would really like to never see another tornado again," Powers said as neighbors sorted through the remnants of their home. "When you see this destruction, how can you not take it seriously?" 

The area near Birmingham has a history of being a tornado alley going back decades. In April, about 20 people were killed in Jefferson County, most of them close to Oak Grove.  Powers' brother was injured in April 1998 when a tornado killed 34 people, injured 260 and destroyed Oak Grove High School. The storm left a heavily-wooded section of the county barren. 

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. 

Retiree Mary Roberts covered her mouth with her hand and grew misty-eyed describing what happened within sight of her mobile home on Toadvine Cemetery Road in Oak Grove.  Just across the street, a twister ripped apart Amber and Russ Butler' trailer, which was scattered across a pasture. The couple took cover in a relative's brick home, and they were not injured. 

Further down the road, Roberts' sister, Janice Sims, lost her husband Bobby and her home.  "They were in a double wide. They have a camper buried that they use to get down in during storms, but it happened so quick they couldn't get to it," she said.  Roberts said her sister is hospitalized but should recover. "I just don't know what she's going to do," she said. 

As dawn broke, residents surveyed the damage and began cleaning up across several parts of central Alabama. The governor declared a state of emergency. 

The storm system stretched from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico, producing hail, strong winds and rain. 

Jefferson County, Ala., 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 a large number of especially intense tornadoes. 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, northeast of Birmingham, 16-year-old Christina Nicole Heichelbech was killed, the Jefferson County coroner's office said. Rescue workers said her parents were injured. 

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. 

The cold front that sparked the severe weather in the Southeast will weaken and washout over Central Florida on Tuesday and it not expected to bring significant changes to South Florida.