Storm damage across east Alabama
March 20, 2018
By Ivana Hrynkiw
AL.com


Storms that included tornadoes and large hail ripped through the northern and eastern parts of Alabama on Monday night, leaving behind damage to Jacksonville State University and thousands without power.

The storms moved through Huntsville and Cullman by 8 p.m. and hit Calhoun County around 8:55 p.m. Residents immediately posted about damage to their areas on social media, and county emergency management agencies asked those in affected areas to stay indoors and shelter until warnings had passed.

Using couch cushions for protection, Richard Brasher hid in the bathtub with his wife, daughter and two grandchildren as the storm passed near the college. The roar was terrifying, said Brasher, 60.

"I thought we were gone," he said. "It happened so fast."

With electrical transformers exploding and trees crashing down all around, Brasher said, it felt like wind "picked up and shook the whole house."

"We were scared to death. It blew the paint off my house," Brasher said.

Mayor Johnny Smith spoke first and said were no fatalities related to last night's storm. Two people were transported to a local hospital with injuries, and two others were treated for injuries at the scene. 

Calhoun County Coroner Pat Brown said there have been people posting on social media that there were deaths due to the storm, but those reports are unconfirmed and the coroner's office has not investigated any storm-related deaths. 

Smith said 35 agencies from across the state have arrived to help efforts in Jacksonville, including fire departments from Homewood and Alabaster.

Students at JSU were on spring break, so not many were on campus. The university's facilities director, David Thompson, said the school currently does not have power, and buildings are being evaluated by engineers. 

"Students have our priority," he said.

According to Assistant Police Chief Bill Wineman, there has been looting from damaged local businesses, so a curfew will be imposed tonight and until the buildings can be secured. The curfew will be in place north of Mountain Street, starting at 7 p.m.

State Senator Del Marsh arrived this morning in Jacksonville, where he toured the area with the mayor and spoke with Gov. Kay Ivey on the phone. Marsh said at the press conference that he was impressed with the large response, and the governor is planning to visit the city today.

According to Alabama Power, crews were still working to restore power to nearly 10,000 customers in the eastern part of the state. At 4 a.m., the company broke down the outages by county: In Calhoun County, there were 5,750 reported outages; 1,750 in Cleburne County; 1,250 in St. Clair County; and 1,200 in Etowah County. This morning, Alabama Power said it is shifting crews from unaffected parts of the state to get more crews in the northeastern area.

The company said the hardest hit areas from last night's storms are the towns of Jacksonville, Southside, Ashville, Heflin, Ohatchee, Muscadine, Wellington, and Springville.

The National Weather Service in Birmingham said on social media that two storm survey teams will be working Tuesday to access damage -- one in Calhoun and Cleburne counties and the other in St. Clair, Etowah and the far western part of Calhoun County.

The Gadsden and Etowah County Emergency Management Agency said the following areas are closed this morning: Green Valley Road from Matt Smith Road to Hwy 77 to the county line, and east of Highway 77 in the Lakemont Estates and Royal Oaks neighborhoods. To enter these areas, an ID with proof of residency must be shown to crews on site.

Calhoun County Sheriff Matthew Wade said WestPoint Church on Highway 204, just outside of Jacksonville, was destroyed.

A wind advisory for Etowah County is in effect beginning at 11 a.m., the EMA tweeted. "Please be aware that trees or structures that were damaged in last night's storms may fall or cause further damage. The Wind Advisory is scheduled to end at 10 p.m. tonight," the agency said.

Storms also hit Cullman, leaving extensive damage to the Cullman Area Rural Transportation Services buses and also to police department and sheriff's office patrol cars.

The Mitch Smith Chevrolet dealership in Cullman also was hit by the storms and dozens of cars sustained damage from large hail. A Mitch Smith salesman told AL.com news partner WHNT that the damage could exceed $4 million.

State Health Officer Scott Harris sent a press release Tuesday afternoon urging all Alabamians to follow important safety guidelines in areas with storm damage or without power. He said generators and grills, or other gasoline, propane, natural gas, or charcoal-burning devices should never be used inside due to the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning.

Regarding food safety, he said a full upright or chest freezer will keep foods frozen for about two days without power, and a partially full freezer will keep about one day. He also advised no one have contact with downed power lines, and anyone using a chainsaw for clean-up efforts to always use the tool at waist-level or below.