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Alabama Residents Recall Tornado, Struggle to Regroup

"I seen the transformer over there explode and I grabbed my dog and hunkered down with him. You could feel the whole trailer moving and shaking. I thought it was going to come apart. We're just lucky to be alive."

Tornado damage in Smith's Station, Alabama, 2019.
Joe Songer/Alabama Media Group/TNS
(TNS) – Randy McDonald on Sparkman Street felt his home shaking violently. Elsie Shelton on Rhodes Street woke when the glass globe on her ceiling fan light exploded. The train-like sound of the tornado was so loud in Detra Russey's house that she could not hear the trees that were falling on the roof.

All three survived the EF2 tornado with 115 mph winds that barreled through Hartselle at about 12:20 a.m. Saturday. Kenneth Dell Cooper, 67, did not. He was killed when the storm flipped his trailer, trapping him underneath, on Vaughn Bridge Road. Morgan County sheriff's deputies pulled him from under the trailer, but he died later that day at Decatur Morgan Hospital.

A graveside service for Cooper, the only Alabama fatality from the storms that struck Saturday, will take place Wednesday at 1 p.m. at Aldridge Grove Cemetery, with Peck Funeral Home assisting.

The 175-yard-wide tornado left chaos as it traveled 13.56 miles, from Alabama 157 to Interstate 65, in six minutes. Another tornado, an EF1 with 94 mph winds, hit Lacey's Spring at 12:47 a.m. Saturday, according to the National Weather Service, causing substantial damage along a path that was 325 yards wide and 2.09 miles long.

"It was like a war zone," McDonald said as he stood next to his severely damaged and uninsured mobile home Monday morning, recalling the tornado's passage. "We ran to the hallway and it was on us before we had a clue. Then everything just started exploding — our fuse box exploded, there were just bright explosions everywhere — and everything was shaking and then it was over. It was the scariest thing I've ever been through in my life. I thought we were gone. If that tree would have fell 5 feet more this direction, then we would be gone."

McDonald's nephew, Crocket Hayes, also was in the mobile home a block east of U.S. 31.

"I seen the transformer over there explode and I grabbed my dog and hunkered down with him," Hayes said. "You could feel the whole trailer moving and shaking. I thought it was going to come apart. We're just lucky to be alive."

Volunteers from Southern Baptist Convention Disaster Relief were working to clear fallen trees, one of which fell on the trailer, on Monday. McDonald and his wife and nephew have slept in pup tents on their property since the storm left the trailer uninhabitable.

"This is our home. It's the only thing we got. No insurance — we ended up dropping it because we couldn't afford it. I wish we wouldn't have," McDonald said.

He wasn't sure where they would go or what comes next.

"We don't know, man. It's so overwhelming. I don't know."

On the other side of U.S. 31, on Rhodes Street, Russey was astonished at the noise the tornado made as it passed by her house.

"It sounded like a train. The sirens went off and there was not much time after that," Russey said. "When the sirens went off, I got up and turned the TV on real fast to see what it was. It was on just long enough that we could see the picture and (the announcer) said, 'Oh, there's one in the air over Hartselle that's north of Highway 36.' We knew that was headed for us. At that point, the power got knocked off. Then I was in the kitchen and (my husband) said, 'I think I hear a train.' I started to head for the bathroom and he said, 'I know I hear a train.' I just beelined straight to the bathroom and he was right behind me.

"All you could really hear was really strong winds and the train sound in the wind. We didn't hear the trees come down. All we heard other than the wind was one windowpane break — a loud crack. The wind noise was drowning out the sound of the trees falling."

Russey's mother, Elsie Shelton, lives on the other side of Rhodes Street. A tree fell into her bedroom, causing her no injury.

"She was in bed still asleep and the glass globe in the ceiling fan burst and hit the floor at the foot of her bed. The tree limb that came through her bedroom isn't what woke her up; the glass globe hitting the floor is what woke her up," Russey said.

Both Russey's and Shelton's homes sustained severe damage, as did other houses on Rhodes Street. Volunteers helping with the recovery have been on that street and others affected by the tornado since Saturday.

"Churches and all have been out here bringing meals — all three meals (Sunday) for workers and everybody," Russey said. "Cars have been coming through that had bottled water and ice coolers, handing them out to the workers and all.

"That's what I love about Hartselle. It is like a family network."

Shelton's house remained without power Monday, as did several Hartselle houses that had severe tree damage. Hartselle Utilities had a peak of 200 customers without power shortly after the storm, but Joe Wheeler EMC, which covers much of the city and the hard-hit areas just west of the city limits, had far more. A Facebook post Saturday morning reported 2,377 Joe Wheeler customers without power, a number that had dropped to 1,227 by Saturday afternoon. A Joe Wheeler spokesman on Monday evening said no count was available on the number of customers still without power.

Both Russey and McDonald said very little time elapsed between sirens going off and the tornado arriving. The director of Morgan County Emergency Management Agency, Brandy Davis, said the tornado developed rapidly, which limited the amount of warning Hartselle -area residents received.

"We got information from the National Weather Service that it looked like (the front) was falling apart, and almost in the next breath that they were going to (issue a tornado warning). It was the same storm that came through Mississippi so they knew it had the potential for tornadoes, but it looked, because of what was going on in the atmosphere, like it would hit a brick wall and fall apart. But at the last minute it came together."

Davis said the geographically isolated damage has been a benefit in that numerous other county EMAs have been able to assist in assessing damage and that neighboring communities have been able to provide help in the form of fire crews, utility workers and church relief groups.

The relatively small area that sustained damage could cause problems, however, when it comes to seeking financial assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

"I am not sure how this is going to shake out," Davis said Monday. "The bad part about it being isolated geographically is that for some assistance you have to meet a state threshold and then a county threshold. It's going to be hard for us to fulfill the state threshold with just our county."

She said there were reports of comparatively minor damage in Lauderdale, Colbert and Jackson counties, but she was not optimistic that those counties' damage combined with the Morgan County damage would meet the statewide threshold — $8,892,973 — needed for residents to potentially access most FEMA relief.

Davis said the area in and just west of Hartselle sustained most of the county's reported damage.

She said the area near Lacey's Spring impacted by that tornado was smaller than in Hartselle, "but there are several structures that either have major damage or are destroyed." She said an area between Falkville and Eva also sustained damage.

Davis said that after reviewing Hartselle's damage she's surprised there was only one fatality.

"We have not gotten any information about additional fatalities or even additional injuries. I've heard of some scratches and people who were sore when pulled out of their houses, but no information about treated injuries," she said. "It's really amazing."

©2023 The Decatur Daily (Decatur, Ala.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.