When forecasters saw signs of a tornado heading toward Jacksonville on March 19, 2018, Calhoun County emergency management officials were in a bind.
Their emergency operations center was on the second floor of a historic building on Francis Street – in Jacksonville. In the path of the storm.
“It is a disruption when you have to evacuate the center,” said director Michael Barton, who came on board as director after the storm.
So EMA officials improvised. They took shelter in the basement, emerging every few minutes to reactivate warning sirens and let local residents know a storm was headed their way.
Mayor Johnny Smith sees a small portion of heroism in that story.
“They manually kept that thing going that night, and I think it saved a lot of lives,” he said.
EMA officials say it was no big deal.
But their quiet disagreement underscores a question that has nagged storm survivors for a year: How did we all survive this?
No one died when an EF3 tornado touched down in Wellington a year ago this week. No one died when the twister roared down Alabama 204, leaving a gap in West Point Church the way a boot leaves a gap in an ant bed. No one died when the storm crashed into Chimney Peak, the mountainside where much of the city’s population lives.
Survivors emerged from the wreckage with an uneasy joy. Many could remember the April 27, 2011, tornado that killed nine people not far from here. Some could recall Palm Sunday of 1994, when a twister killed 20 in a church in Goshen, near Piedmont. If March 19 was a miracle, it still left questions as old as Job and the whirlwind.
The 23 deaths in Lee County’s recent tornado only underscored those questions — questions about why some suffer and some survive.
There are a few practical questions that should be easier to answer. How much does Jacksonville owe to dumb luck? How much did the community do right? And were there lessons on Palm Sunday and April 27 that helped us later?
The empty city
When a hurricane approaches, coastal towns evacuate. Roads fill with cars, and all lanes carry traffic inland. Ideally, the storm lands on an empty city.
Jacksonville is the rare example of a city that evacuated ahead of a tornado.
“We’d have had a different story to tell if this hadn’t happened at Spring Break,” Smith said.
The city has 13,162 residents, according to the Census Bureau. It’s likely that count misses some of the roughly 8,500 students at Jacksonville State University, the city’s main employer. When the college goes on spring break, city schools do, too.
On Monday, March 19, the city wasn’t exactly a ghost town. But it was the Jacksonville of early summer, not the Jacksonville of football season.
Chalk one up to dumb luck.
A plan, and a polygon
It’s possible, but hard to prove, that the residents who remained were better equipped for a storm than residents of years past.
“That’s a story you hear over and over again,” said Smith. The mayor said he’s talked to many constituents who knew where their safe places were and knew the storm was coming.
Local officials say there’s no way to prove that people are more ready, but they also say it wouldn’t be a surprise. Awareness of all things tornado, generally, is high.
“The news media — particularly the TV folks — were really on top of it,” Smith said
That’s perhaps a polite way of telling a newspaper reporter that people were watching James Spann, the ABC 33/40 weatherman whose tornado warnings are must-see TV for many Alabama residents.
“If you’re in this polygon, you respect it and you go to a safe place,” Spann said in the station’s coverage on March 19, when the tornado was still just a splotch on the radar and Jacksonville at the center of a warning box on the map.
That coverage is preserved on the station’s Youtube page; in it, Spann calls out local place names in eerie detail: the Angel community, Pleasant Valley High School, Roy Webb Road. And he’s adamant that people outside the box, in Anniston or Oxford, don’t need to worry.
After the April 27, 2011, storm, local emergency officials took a page from forecasters like Spann. At the time, a tornado warning anywhere in the county would set off outdoor sirens across the county. Television warnings focused on more narrow warning boxes – polygons – that showed more exactly where the storm would hit.
Local officials fretted about “blue sky syndrome,” a tendency to take sirens less seriously because of too-frequent warnings. Some of the April 27 storm victims actually waited to lay eyes on a funnel cloud before taking shelter, a National Weather Service study found.
Local sirens are limited to the polygon now, Barton said.
The siren system itself is a monument to an earlier storm. When a tornado killed 20 people at Goshen United Methodist Church in 1994, lawmakers cobbled together enough federal money to expand tornado sirens to the most-sparsely populated parts of the county.
It didn’t hurt that Anniston at the time was home to a stockpile of chemical weapons and Army officials were under pressure to develop evacuation plans.
Today, EMA officials are reluctant to expect much from the sirens.
“These are outdoor warning sirens,” Barton said. “That’s the name of them. They’re meant to be used for outdoor warnings and are not meant to be heard inside.”
After the April 27, 2011, super outbreak, a state panel recommended that local officials develop more ways of warning people about approaching storms. Today the EMA also has Nixle, a system that lets them send texts to warn of approaching storms. (To get those messages, text “CalhounEMA” to 888777.)
That panel, the Tornado Recovery Action Council, made 20 specific recommendations to prepare for the next storm outbreak. Seven years after the council’s report, not all of those recommendations have been implemented.
Among the ignored recommendations: requiring all newly-built apartment complexes and mobile home parks to have storm shelters.
“It’s an interesting idea,” said Jonathan Cameron-Hayes, owner of Gamecock Village, an apartment complex off campus that was in the direct path of the March 19 storm . “When you’ve got 500 residents, I’m not sure how you provide that.”
Cameron-Hayes said Gamecock Village didn’t have a tornado shelter when the storm hit it, and it doesn’t now.
Again, dumb luck seems to have saved lives. Cameron-Hayes said only around 100 of the complex’s roughly 500 renters were in town during spring break, and some of them sought cover at city-run shelters.
As for mobile home parks, Jacksonville by and large doesn’t have them. That’s by design. The city put a moratorium on new mobile homes in 2015 after residents of the Mill Village complained about new trailers in their neighborhood.
“It wasn’t about tornadoes so much,” said Mark Williams, the city’s building inspector. Williams said residents were more concerned about the possible effect on the property value of their homes.
The fact that Jacksonville has a building inspector at all may have helped guard against some storm damage. After the April 27 storm, the Tornado Recovery Action Council recommended new statewide structural requirements for houses to make them stronger against storms.
There’s a statewide panel, the Alabama Energy and Residential Code Board, that establishes some statewide building rules – but the board has no real enforcement powers.
“The bulk of your inspections are going to be in the cities,” said Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, a member of the code board.