MOBILE, Ala. — Residents of old neighborhoods ripped apart by Christmas Day tornadoes wrapped up in coats and pulled on gloves for warmth Wednesday, the sound of screaming chainsaws replacing the scary roar of tornadoes that left damage scattered across much of Alabama.
With only a handful of injuries and no deaths reported statewide from the storms, the head of the state’s emergency response said it was difficult to fathom how the toll wasn’t worse.
“I think we had a lot of tornadoes that were capable of producing damage. We’re just very fortunate this morning for whatever reason that it wasn’t worse,” Art Faulkner, director of the Alabama Emergency Management Agency, said after surveying storm-tossed areas in Mobile. It was the second time in five days a twister hit Mobile; a small tornado left damage along a trail 7 miles long on Dec. 20.
Alabama Power Co. said storms affected more than 47,500 customers, but power was restored in most areas outside the hardest-hit parts of Mobile, where falling limbs from massive hardwoods snapped power lines and covered streets. Many people spent the night in cold, dark houses and temperatures dipped into the 40s after the storms passed.
The tree-lined neighborhoods near downtown Mobile took the worst hit statewide: A twister slammed into Murphy High School and heavily damaged a historic church, leaving neighborhoods littered with trees and debris from damaged homes. The weather service said the damage was caused by a small twister that hit near downtown Mobile.
But damage was widespread across Alabama: The weather service reported structural or tree damage in about 15 counties, and Faulkner said preliminary reviews found six counties with several dozen damaged homes total. The weather service said trees were knocked down as far north as the Tennessee Valley, about 340 miles north, and a mobile home park was hit hard near Troy in Pike County, about 185 miles northeast of Mobile.
A damage assessment by forecasters showed an EF-1 tornado with winds up to 100 mph struck Marengo County near Demopolis, hurting no one but destroying two mobile homes and damaging a dozen houses along a path nearly 6 miles long and 500 yards wide.
With only one person known hospitalized — a man whose mobile home was destroyed in the Pike County twister — Faulkner said the low number of casualties might be a result of the skittishness many people still feel because of the killer storms of April 2011, when tornadoes killed about 250 people statewide.
“I think people, with it still being as close as it is to the spring 2011 storms, took this seriously,” Faulkner said.
Bobby and Sherry Sims didn’t take any chances with the weather. Relaxing at home after finishing their Christmas dinner, they were startled into action by the roar outside.
“We heard that very distinct sound, like a freight train,” said Bob Sims. They headed for a center bathroom.
Power was still out at the Sims’ home the morning after, but the house wasn’t damaged and they used a generator to run heaters to stay warm. Some neighbors were less fortunate, their roofs peeled away and porches smashed by falling trees.
Jason Gerth’s family was in the living room celebrating Christmas when the tornado warning sirens blared.
“We grabbed the women and the children and ran to the bathroom and threw them in the tub,” he said. “My brother-in-law and I just kind of stood watch over everybody.”
Their home wasn’t damaged, and no one was hurt.
Temperatures were near 70 before Christmas, but the storms preceded a blast of cold air that dropped afternoon highs into the 40s and 50s statewide. Winds gusted to near 40 mph in areas and snow flurries fell in spots, making it feel that much colder.
The Mobile Bay ferry linking Dauphin Island and Baldwin County’s Fort Morgan shut down because of a gale warning and winds up to 35 mph. Operators expected to resume service Thursday.
On the day after Christmas, residents of the historic downtown Mobile neighborhood surveyed the damage and checked up on their neighbors.
Limbs from towering live oak trees, magnolias and cedars fell on power lines that were tangled across many yards and driveways. Police directed traffic through downtown intersections because of the power outages. Police tape kept the curious away from some of the more heavily damaged places including the historic Murphy High and Trinity Episcopal Church.
The church had part of its roof ripped away in the storm and the school lost sections of its terracotta-tiled roof and had windows blown out. Many picturesque and historic homes lost portions of their roofs and porches. Tree limbs and debris fell on cars.
But most residents counted their blessing that the damage wasn’t worse.
“There were so many people who were home, so many people that were home and not injured. It’s a miracle,” said Jenetta McGee.