Small Towns in Southeast Hit Hard by Tornadoes

By Jay Reeves, Kate Brumback, Bruce Schreiner, Roger Alford, Brett Barrouquere | March 5, 2012

Residents of towns throughout the Southeast are recovering from the shock of last Friday’s severe storms and tornadoes. Along with pubic and insurance officials, they are beginning to assess the damage from the string of storms that caused death and destruction from Kentucky to Georgia. The following are reports from Southeast states most affected.

Kentucky: Small Town Hit Hard; 19 Lives Lost

In small Kentucky towns, residents told survival stories and talked about their friends and family members who were killed in the most powerful tornadoes to hit the eastern part of the state in nearly a quarter-century. In all, 19 people died.

Some towns were all but wiped out after at least four tornadoes – three with wind speeds up to 160 mph — hopscotched around the state Friday. As residents looked through the debris and rescue crews searched obliterated homes, stories of how some stayed safe emerged.

Tracy Pitman said she was at home with her husband and 4-year-old grandson when a tornado with winds of up to 130 mph sped through.

“I grabbed my baby and I said, `Baby, lay down,’ and I got on top of him and my husband got on top of me and it was already happening, just flipping us over and over and over,” said Pitman, of East Bernstadt, a small town 70 miles south of Lexington.

When it was all over, her husband told his grandson: “God was sitting on my shoulder; that’s all that saved us.”

Her in-laws in the mobile home next door were killed. All that remained of their home was cinder blocks.

Tina Pitman, a daughter-in-law, said she had visited with Wilburn and Virginia Pitman earlier in the day. Their seven dogs survived.

“I just wish I had hugged them a little harder,” Tina Pitman said.

Nearby, Carol Rhodes clutched four VHS tapes to her chest and sobbed as she talked about her neighbors, Debbie and Sherman Wayne Allen, who were also killed.

“They were the best neighbors,” Rhodes said. “You couldn’t ask for no better.”

Rhodes said she and her husband, mother, daughter and grandchild hid from the storm in their basement.

“It was like, ‘Whoo!’ That was it,” Rhodes said. “Honey, I felt the wind and I said, ‘Oh, my God,’ and then (the house) was gone. I looked up and I could see the sky.”

In the small farming town of West Liberty in the foothills of the Appalachians, the Rev. Kenneth Jett of the West Liberty United Methodist Church recalled how he and four others huddled together in a little cubby hole in the basement as the church collapsed.

The pastor and his wife were in the parsonage next door when they saw on TV that the storm was coming. They ran into the church and headed for the basement with two congregants who had been cleaning the church and a neighbor who sought refuge there.

The last one down was Jett’s wife, Jeanene.

“I just heard this terrific noise,” she said. “The windows were blowing out as I came down the stairs.”

Gov. Steve Beshear and Lt. Gov. Jerry Abramson toured the hardest-hit areas of the state Saturday.

During a visit to Kenton County in northern Kentucky, Beshear took a call from President Barack Obama. The Democratic governor told Obama the state had been the target of storms twice this week.

Beshear said he plans to ask for federal disaster assistance for both storms.

Alabama: Twister Slams Same Area Hit in 2011

Cody Stewart is done owning a home for a little while. He has lost his house to tornadoes twice in 10 months.

A killer twister wiped out his Harvest, Alabama, neighborhood in the epic Alabama storms April 27, causing Stewart $40,000 worth of damage that forced him to temporarily move in with his parents. In his house for less than two months with repairs still incomplete, another tornado hit again Friday, ripping off the roof, slinging it into the backyard and leaving the walls bowed outward.

This time, the damage is beyond repair.

“I kind of expected there to be more storms again this year, but you never expect it to hit the same place twice,” Stewart said Saturday as he stood in what remains of his wood-frame home. “I think I’m going to live in an apartment awhile. I’m not superstitious, but it just kind of seems there’s a path here and I don’t want to be in it again, and I hope other people make the same choice.”

The damage included nearly every house in Stewart’s neighborhood in the Tennessee Valley about 15 miles (24 kilometers) northwest of Huntsville.

The storms were not as deadly in Alabama this time. Nearly 200 miles (322 kilometers) south of Harvest, which is near the Tennessee state line, one person was killed in Jackson’s Gap. Last year, twisters cut a wide path of destruction across the region, killing about 250 people statewide, including at least two near where Stewart lived.

Dozens of homes were damaged or destroyed a year ago in his neighborhood, which was left looking like logging crews had come through because all of the trees were snapped and tossed to the ground.

Across the street from Stewart, Jason Kerr and his wife lost their home to the April 27 twister but weren’t injured. Kerr had just finished demolishing the house, rebuilding the garage and hauling in $5,000 worth of dirt for a new foundation when the latest storm stuck. Their brand new garage was damaged, and they might not be able to repair it.

Longtime residents talk about the 1974 tornado outbreak that wiped out hundreds of homes, killed nearly 90 people and injured about 950 people in north Alabama. Stewart remembers a twister in the early `90s, when he was still a boy. The repeated bashings have left people feeling short on luck, at the very least.

As Stewart left home Friday to drive to work at a tech company in Huntsville, something felt eerie. Forecasters had been warning of the chance of severe weather for days, and he said it was too warm for early March; the sky looked too gray.

“It was just that sick feeling in your stomach,” he said. “It was like, ‘It feels familiar.”‘

Now, with Yarbrough Road hit twice in such a short period, Stewart said nothing will ever be the same there.

“It’s time to move on,” he said.

Georgia: Homes, Buildings, Planes Damaged

Overnight thunderstorms damaged nearly 100 homes in northwest Georgia and left hundreds without power in metro Atlanta on Saturday as many of the state’s southern counties were on alert for possibly more severe weather.

No deaths had been reported and only one injury, a man who had been pulled from the wreckage of his home late Friday in Haralson County on the Georgia-Alabama line, said Lisa Janak, spokeswoman for the Georgia Emergency Management Agency. She said the man had been treated at a hospital and was not severely hurt.

Assessment teams were getting a closer look at the damage in northern Georgia, while the threat for tornadoes and severe storms moved into southern parts of the state.

“South Georgia is in the crosshairs right now,” Janak said.

The National Weather Service issued tornado watches Saturday for more than 30 counties in South Georgia, where many were placed under flood watches as well. The storms stretched from Albany and southwest counties near the Alabama line across the state to the coast, where Effingham County northwest of Savannah reported trees toppled and power lines down.

Georgia Power said about 2,700 customers statewide were without electricity Saturday. That included blackouts to about 1,500 customers in Eatonton in middle Georgia.

Officials said the worst damage was in Paulding County northwest of Atlanta. Authorities there said nearly 100 homes had suffered moderate to severe damaged, possibly by a tornado, as well as the county airport and an elementary school.

The Atlanta Constitution reported that a possible tornado late Friday caused extensive damage to about a dozen planes, hangars and the terminal at Paulding Northwest Atlanta Airport. Airport manager Blake Swafford said metal ripped from the hangars ended up in trees and several windows were smashed.

“All the fencing is damaged, all of the light posts are damaged, basically everything is damaged,” Swafford said. “We’re going to be a very, very long time cleaning up a huge mess and starting over.”

Not far from the airport, Poole Elementary School had much of its roof torn off and a brick wall had been shattered. Six portable classroom trailers were damaged.

“My first thought is the fact that it wasn’t during the day with the kids,” said Angie Capobianco, the school’s principal. “That’s a blessing. I just feel so fortunate that it didn’t happen during the day.”

North Carolina: 5 Injured, More Than 100 Homes Damaged

Tornadoes were confirmed to have touched down in two North Carolina counties, damaging more than 100 homes and several businesses as the storms injured five people.

The National Weather Service confirmed a tornado struck Cherokee County on Friday night, touching down with winds of up to 120 mph that damaged 25 homes and 15 businesses. On Saturday morning, a twister struck Mecklenburg and Cabarrus counties, damaging nearly 90 homes.

Ernie Seneca, a spokesman for the state Department of Public Safety, said five people in the Mecklenburg storm suffered injuries that weren’t life-threatening. However, local officials put the number at three.

The American Red Cross said a preliminary assessment showed three homes were destroyed, and another eight were severely damaged. In all, the Red Cross said, 89 homes were damaged in the Mecklenburg storm.

Alicia Watson surveyed the damage early Saturday morning.

“We were home at the time and we took shelter upstairs because we tried to go downstairs and saw our windows being shattered out,” Watson told the Charlotte Observer. “It blew out the back of our house.”

Maria Perez also heard the storm blow through. “My house was rattling and I heard the wind and windows in my house shaking,” Perez said. “My daughter was screaming and we ran to my sister’s house.”

WSOC-TV reported that the weather service said the tornado ripped through the area at 130 mph to 135 mph for almost 4 miles, cutting a path 150 to 200 yards wide.

The storm struck shortly before 3 a.m., and without any tornado or severe thunderstorm warnings, the Observer reported. The National Weather Service had expected severe weather to remain south and southwest of Charlotte, because meteorologists said the atmosphere had not become unstable enough to support severe weather.

Charlotte mayor Anthony Foxx surveyed the damage and said he will seek federal and state aid to help residents recover from the storm, WBTV reported.

Urban search and rescue teams from Buncombe and Swain counties were called to help authorities in Cherokee County, Seneca said. They checked collapsed buildings to make sure no one was trapped.

No injuries or fatalities were reported in Cherokee County.

Tennessee: 17 Counties Report Damage; No Fatalities

When Janet Elliott saw a severe weather warning scroll across her television screen Friday morning she could hear fierce winds outside, and her two cats and two dogs seated on the bed with her seemed agitated.

“They were nervous. The dogs got real low to the floor and the cats were being clingy,” she said. “Then I could feel the pressure in my ears and head, and I knew I should get to the basement.”

She ran across the hall to the basement door and called the pets but they wouldn’t come. She tried with all her might to pull the door shut, but then heard a ripping sound as the ceiling peeled off above her head and the doorknob was wrenched from her hand by the wind.

“I looked up and I could see the sky,” she said through tears. “I realized if I had stayed on the bed two seconds longer, I would have been sucked out or crushed.”

Once the initial terror was over, a new wave of fear washed over her. Her husband had left for the store shortly before the storm hit, her 33-year-old handicapped son was likely on a bus headed home from his school and she couldn’t find one of her cats.

“It was the scariest thing I think I’ve ever lived through,” Elliott said.

Thousands remained without power Saturday and hundreds in the central and eastern parts of the state were assessing damage and sorting through destroyed belongings. But while dozens were killed across the South and Midwest, Tennessee had no new reports of casualties just two days after three people died in another string of tornado-spawning storms.

“We were very fortunate here in Tennessee,” Tennessee Emergency Management Agency spokesman Jeremy Heidt said.

TEMA says a total of 75 tornado warnings were issued throughout the state on Friday. The National Weather Service said three tornadoes had been confirmed by Saturday afternoon, and officials believe the final count will be much higher since teams of meteorologists were still assessing the damage.

“We’re going to have a whole lot more tornadoes to report eventually,” said David Hotz, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service office in Morristown. “We’re just starting.”

The Weather Service preliminarily confirmed a Category 2 tornado that ravaged areas from the Dodson Branch Community in Jackson County as far as northern Putnam County and into parts of southern Overton County.

A Category 2 tornado with winds up to 90 miles per hour touched down in Cheatham County south of Kingston Springs, but officials said they have not yet determined the length of the path of destruction.

Hotz said a weaker tornado was confirmed in Mascot, Tenn., outside Knoxville, with winds up to 80 miles per hour.

A total of 17 Tennessee counties reported damage from the storms, but Hamilton County where Elliott and her family live was among the hardest hit. Her husband Robert arrived shortly after the tornado damaged their home and ran inside looking for her. They found all the pets. And her son was safely at school, where they found him a few hours later.

On Saturday, the Elliotts walked around their house, picking through the fluffy white layer of insulation that coated all flat surfaces like freshly fallen snow. She set aside some antique crockery and other collectibles, while he emerged from a bedroom with a small box in hand, talking under his breath about his college ring.

Their son and daughter-in-law and volunteers focused mostly on securing a tarp to the roof to keep rain from coming through gaping holes and using a chainsaw to clear big branches from the driveway so they’d be able to get a truck up to carry out whatever they’re able to salvage.

Janet Elliott says she’s not sure where they’ll go now. They don’t have much family in the area, and their disabled son needs special accommodations. But for now, she’s grateful everyone made it out alive. She waved her arm at the mess in the living room, pointing to the stone fireplace and mantle her husband had built and the many antiques collected over more than three decades of marriage.

“This was more than just a house, more than just a place to flop,” she said. “There was a lot of love in this house. It was special.

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