EF-1 tornado, flooding leave extensive damage in wake of Wednesday storms

Benjamin Bullard, The Cullman Times, Ala.
·4 min read

Mar. 19—East of Cullman on Wednesday near Simcoe, Shawn and Kimberly Striker spent the day watching meteorologists cover the turbulent weather on television. Things seemed to finally be clearing up as the evening wore on.

"At around 9:30, they were saying the bad weather was over. I got up, started shutting windows, getting ready for bed," said Shawn.

But Kimberly's smart phone's weather app told a different story. "I said, 'Shawn, I think we're fixing to get another bad round.'"

Not long after, the Strikers and many of their neighbors heard what Shawn described — and the National Weather Service (NWS) later confirmed — was the signature freight-train sound of a tornado.

The NWS Huntsville office said the storm that tracked a path through eastern Cullman County late Wednesday carried with it an EF-1 tornado, though its preliminary investigation had yet to determine whether more than one twister might have been involved. The Strikers' house sustained some damage, but it was slight compared with the shorn roofs, toppled trees, and destruction to chicken houses and other outbuildings in the area.

The tornado came near the end of a full day of severe weather, which brought a more widespread form of destruction with rainfall totals that, in some areas, exceeded 7 inches.

Cullman County Emergency Management Agency director Phyllis Little said Thursday that rainfall reports from throughout the county started at 3.5 inches on the low end and went up from there, flooding low-lying areas and, in several places, violently washing out portions of rural county roads altogether.

"We've got washouts around culverts and blowouts of culverts from the west side of the county, near the Jones Chapel and West Point areas, all the way over to Fairview," said Little. "We've had bridges underwater in some areas.

"In terms of residential and structural damage, the most concentrated area is in the Simcoe community; in the general area of County Roads 1568, 1569, and 1579," she added. "We've got houses with trees on them; houses that've had their roofs and rafters just sheared off; chicken houses that've been damaged, vehicles with trees collapsed on top of them. But the big relief in all of it is that nobody was hurt. We had no reports of injuries or deaths. The rest of the damage, we can fix."

A law enforcement helicopter with ALEA surveyed the Simcoe-area damage from above on Thursday, while NWS representatives arrived at the scene to assess the destruction at ground level. The Red Cross was also on hand, extending the first wave of temporary assistance to residents who'd been either displaced or disrupted by the storm.

As NWS and local emergency officials review ALEA's aerial footage and the Red Cross aids residents, representatives from the Alabama Licensing Board for General Contractors are also on site, meeting with residents to advise them on avoiding opportunistic home repair scams.

"They're encouraging people to prevent being taken advantage of by fly-by-night crews claiming to be roofers; people who take your money up front and leave," said Little. "All of these people on site — the Red Cross, the National Weather Service; the licensure people — they all have photo ID, and they're happy to show you who they are. They encourage people to ask, because they're all trying to ensure that victims of destructive events like this one aren't being exploited."

Some county roads where the water has swept away pavement, or damaged culverts to create standing water, have been indefinitely closed. Little said the county road department is still assessing the damage, as well as which roadways will need to remain closed, and that residents in some areas should be mindful of the possibility that school bus routes and through access may require detours for the near future.

"There are still a lot of roads that are closed, and school buses are having to be re-routed on Friday because of that," she said. "We're asking that people be aware of the possibility of standing water over roadways, especially at night, and to not try to cross the washed out areas. Some of them are really big.

A day before the storms, the Cullman County Commission approved Little's request at its regular meeting to preemptively declare a local state of emergency in order to authorize the use of its early-response road resources quickly, should the storms prove destructive. But with areas countywide affected by extensive flooding damage, as well as the tornado's more violent destruction near Simcoe, it will likely be several days before officials have an idea of how damaging the March 17 event will prove financially — to both private property owners and county government.

Read more in the Weekend Edition of The Times.

Amanda Shavers contributed to this story.