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SLAMMED

Jacksonville begins recovery after strong storms sweep through city

  • 4 min to read
Jacksonville begins recovery after strong storms sweep through city

JACKSONVILLE — Rufus Kinney was eating a sandwich at his kitchen table about two minutes before the tree came through the wall.

“I started hearing these popping sounds outside,” said Kinney, a retired college instructor who lives in a once-leafy neighborhood on the side of Jacksonville’s Chimney Peak. “Then I heard this explosion, and this was in my kitchen.”

Photo Gallery: JSU Tornado Damage

Images from the tornado damage around the Jacksonville State University campus.

Major damage to the JSU Alumni House. A tornado struck Jacksonville and the JSU campus Monday doing extensive damage. (Photo by Trent Penny/Th…

University Field is in a wreck after the storm. A tornado struck Jacksonville and the JSU campus Monday doing extensive damage. (Photo by Tren…

JSU assistant softball coach Julie Boland surveys the damage at University Field. A tornado struck Jacksonville and the JSU campus Monday doin…

Kirsten Titus' damaged car sits parked near University Field at JSU. (Photo by Trent Penny/The Anniston Star)

An Insurance Planning bus prepares to fix food for anyone who needs it. A tornado struck Jacksonville and the JSU campus Monday doing extensiv…

Pete Mathews Coliseum is used as a staging area for responders and power crews. A tornado struck Jacksonville and the JSU campus Monday doing …

Major damage to the Dollar General store on Highway 204. A tornado struck Jacksonville and the JSU campus Monday doing extensive damage. (Phot…

A pedestrian saves a JSU flag. A tornado struck Jacksonville and the JSU campus Monday doing extensive damage. (Photo by Trent Penny/The Annis…

The power company trucks roll in. A tornado struck Jacksonville and the JSU campus Monday doing extensive damage. (Photo by Trent Penny/The An…

Heavy damage to Logan Hall. A tornado struck Jacksonville and the JSU campus Monday doing extensive damage. (Photo by Trent Penny/The Anniston Star)

Trees snapped like toothpicks line the landscape along Highway 204. A tornado struck Jacksonville and the JSU campus Monday doing extensive da…

Heavy damage to Logan and Patterson Hall. A tornado struck Jacksonville and the JSU campus Monday doing extensive damage. (Photo by Trent Penn…

Traffic flows amid the damage along Highway 21. A tornado struck Jacksonville and the JSU campus Monday doing extensive damage. (Photo by Tren…

A look down West Ave. NW. A tornado struck Jacksonville and the JSU campus Monday doing extensive damage. (Photo by Trent Penny/The Anniston Star)

A look down West Ave NW. A tornado struck Jacksonville and the JSU campus Monday doing extensive damage. (Photo by Trent Penny/The Anniston Star)

Heavy traffic from onlookers roll down Highway 204. A tornado struck Jacksonville and the JSU campus Monday doing extensive damage. (Photo by …

Power poles were snapped like twigs. A tornado struck Jacksonville and the JSU campus Monday doing extensive damage. (Photo by Trent Penny/The…

A look down Burke Ave NW. A tornado struck Jacksonville and the JSU campus Monday doing extensive damage. (Photo by Trent Penny/The Anniston Star)

Students stand amid debris to get a glimpse of Reserve Apartments. A tornado struck Jacksonville and the JSU campus Monday doing extensive dam…

Heavy damage at the Reserve Apartments. A tornado struck Jacksonville and the JSU campus Monday doing extensive damage. (Photo by Trent Penny/…

Heavy damage at the Reserve Apartments. A tornado struck Jacksonville and the JSU campus Monday doing extensive damage. (Photo by Trent Penny/…

Officers check things out at Reserve Apartments. A tornado struck Jacksonville and the JSU campus Monday doing extensive damage. (Photo by Tre…

A responder looks over the damage. A tornado struck Jacksonville and the JSU campus Monday doing extensive damage. (Photo by Trent Penny/The A…

Most of the glass is blown out of the front of Merrill Hall. A tornado struck Jacksonville and the JSU campus Monday doing extensive damage. (…

Damage at Merrill Hall. A tornado struck Jacksonville and the JSU campus Monday doing extensive damage. (Photo by Trent Penny/The Anniston Star)

Alabama Highway 21 is littered with debris as you enter the campus. A tornado struck Jacksonville and the JSU campus Monday doing extensive da…

Bibb Graves Hall appears intact with large trees down around it. A tornado struck Jacksonville and the JSU campus Monday doing extensive damag…

Kinney is among hundreds of Jacksonville residents whose lives were upended Monday night by a storm that brought at least one tornado — and possibly more — to Calhoun County.

In the aftermath, thousands were without power, a 7 p.m. curfew was set for north Jacksonville, the campus of Jacksonville State University was closed and Gov. Kay Ivey declared a state of emergency.

It started as a normal March day in the South, or normal enough. Most students had left the college town for spring break. Forecasters were running their models, showing the kind of tornado-outbreak predictions that are common enough to nearly ignore, unless you enjoy the frisson of danger implied in the warnings across the bottom of the TV screen.

Only this time was different. For the first time in perhaps decades, it was Jacksonville’s turn. By 8:30 p.m., the sirens were blaring. Minutes later, professors and students, construction workers and retirees were huddled in bathrooms and closets across the north half of town, as the passing storm roared by like Niagara Falls pouring itself on the city. Some said they felt a sudden chill in the air, others felt their ears popping.

“I could hear doors opening and closing, opening and closing,” said Madeline Miles, a Jacksonville State University sophomore who rode out the storm with a ham radio in hand. “Some of them were ripping off the hinges.”

Heflin Mayor Rudy Rooks said that “we fared very good compared to the damage around the other places.” He said there was some hail damage on vehicles and some windows were knocked out at a business on Ross Street.

No one was killed in the storm, and there were only two known serious injuries when local police and city officials briefed reporters at nine the next morning.

But the northeast quarter of Jacksonville — where construction had crept up the mountain for decades and professors lived next door to students and blue-collar workers — was as ruined as Rufus Kinney’s kitchen. Trees and power poles lay on their sides or across crumpled houses. Electrical transformers dangled by wires or lay in the streets.

 Six thousand were without electrical power in the county by sunrise, and public officials didn’t even bother to project a time it would be back on. According to Alabama Power, nighttime Tuesday found 3,300 customers in Calhoun County without electricity and another 400 in Cleburne County.

“We’re very fortunate, I think, in the fact that it was spring break,” Mayor Johnny Smith said at a Tuesday press conference. The town’s economy revolves around JSU, a college of about 8,000 students, and city schools close when the college does.

Whole families were out of town for the break. Crucially, many students had already departed from the Reserve, a three-story apartment complex that saw much of its top floor crushed in the storm. The storm also knocked the front face out of a Dollar General near the complex.

Citing possible looting of items from the store, Jacksonville police declared a 7 p.m curfew for the storm-battered hillside. By mid-morning, police and firefighters were already stopping people who wanted to drive into those neighborhoods, to separate sightseers from residents returning home.

 The full extent of campus damage was unclear; Smith declared the entire zone off-limits. Part of the roof was ripped off Houston Cole Library, the city’s tallest building, as were the peaked roofs of some of the university’s dorms. Part of the roof was missing on the Alumni House, an historic former home that hosts many of the university’s formal events.

In the hillside neighborhoods, where almost no house went untouched, many residents weren’t sure where to even start with cleanup.

Tyler Bennett, a Ninth Street resident, said he was playing Fortnite — a computer game in which unwary players can get caught in the eye of a deadly storm — when the power went out. Within minutes he was hunkering down and texting parents that he loved them. On Tuesday, he said he was happy to be alive, but couldn’t decide whether to start with downed trees or the leaves inside his house.

“I’ll probably start with the inside,” he said. “I don’t even own a chain saw.” 

Some college students had no clear idea where they’d stay at all. Miles, the sophomore, lived off campus but was told she’d have to leave her house because of gas leaks. First the campus housed her and a handful of students at Pannell Hall — which she described as creepy in the best of times — but there was no electricity there. By Tuesday morning, she was at the mayor’s press conference, wrapped in a blanket, to ask where she should go. Local officials huddled with her after the event.

Gov. Kay Ivey, who toured the area early Tuesday afternoon, mentioned the students’ dilemma as one of the top issues in storm recovery.

“They’ve got a challenge, to figure out how to place these students,” Ivey said in brief remarks on campus. The governor spent the day touring cities hit by tornadoes Monday and said Jacksonville was “one of the hardest-hit spots in the state.”

Weather service officials headed into the storm zone Tuesday morning to look at the storm damage and guess at the tornado’s strength. They said they were confident that at least a single tornado had struck, though they held out the possibility of a second or third. Sheriff Matthew Wade said there was also damage in rural communities such as Wellington, Peeks Hill and Nances Creek, but no injuries.

For years, maybe decades, the city watched tornadoes blast through the communities north of town, bringing tragedy to towns like Piedmont again and again. Local resident Mike Ledbetter recalls thinking that Jacksonville was somehow protected from storms, though on Tuesday he couldn’t recall why. The damage he saw while helping a relative dig out convinced him the city had been lucky Monday night.

“When you look at all this, it’s hard to believe that nobody died,” he said.

 

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

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