Experts upgrade Ohatchee tornado to EF3, citing 140 mph winds

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Tim Lockette, The Anniston Star, Ala.
·3 min read
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Mar. 30—The tornado that struck Ohatchee and Wellington Thursday was stronger than originally estimated, rating EF3 with 140 mph winds, meteorologists concluded Monday night.

Forecasters upgraded their estimate of the storm's severity after taking another look at one of Ohatchee's hardest-hit structures, the Precision Materials plant on Alabama 77, National Weather Service Meteorologist Chris Darden said Tuesday.

"It was basically progressive collapse of the structure," Darden said.

Darden and other weather experts traveled across the state in the days after the storm, trying to get an estimate of where funnel clouds touched down. According to the final count, 11 tornadoes touched down Thursday. With each of them, forecasters judge the strength of the wind by the damage the storm causes on the ground.

Calhoun County's last EF3 storm was the March 2018 twister that hit Jacksonville, damaging hundreds of homes and wrecking the campus of Jacksonville State University.

Darden said storms of EF3 and higher are relatively rare, making up about 2 percent of tornadoes overall — although those figures include numbers from across the country, while strong storms are more common in the Southeast.

Emergency management officials on Monday said that with half the storm zone surveyed, at least 177 structures in Ohatchee and Wellington were damaged.

Darden said Thursday's damage seemed to be most severe at or near Precision Materials, with severe damage seen through Ohatchee and Wellington. Toward the end of the tornado's northeastward track, in Pleasant Valley and Knighten's Crossroads, he said, the damage seems more in line with an EF1 storm, which can damage a roof or topple a tree.

Clearing debris

In the Roy Webb community Tuesday morning, entire hillsides full of pines stood tilted by the storm, and residents along Roy Webb Road worked to clear downed trees from their yards. At The Learning Tree, a school for people with disabilities on Roy Webb Road, tarps covered a damaged roof and broken windows as crews worked to repair the building.

"I know this school was built to withstand, because it's been here a long time," said Learning Tree operations administrator Deborah Hulsey. Built early in the 20th century, the building was once Roy Webb Elementary.

Hulsey said the school building was flooded but otherwise in good shape. The Learning Tree closed early Thursday because of the storm threat.

Emergency management officials on Tuesday said that debris-clearing is now the top task in the storm-affected area — and volunteers are the main workforce. People who want to volunteer can show up at Oak Bowery Baptist Church between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. on most days, althrough Calhoun County Emergency Management Agency spokeswoman Tiffany DeBoer said the agency doesn't plan to send volunteers out Wednesday because of another round of severe weather in the forecast.

"We do expect a lot of volunteers for the rest of the week and especially the weekend," DeBoer said.

Piedmont tornado identified

Forecasters now say a tornado also touched down Thursday in Piedmont just north of the Cherokee County line, heading eastward and doing damage consistent with a weak EF0 tornado. That tornado likely spun off the same storm that produced the Ohatchee tornado, Darden said.

"One house had some roof covering taken off," he said. "There were some pine trees that were uprooted."

Damage from that storm was difficult to assess, he said, because of a strong, non-tornadic storm that blew through the area earlier. Forecasters ran into similar problems assessing the damage from the tornado that touched down in Coosa and Chilton counties last week.

Both counties were hard hit by last year's hurricane, Darden said.

Capitol & statewide reporter Tim Lockette: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.