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Storms rake southern states

BY SUSAN KIM | Tuscaloosa, AL | March 12, 2000

Severe storms stretching from Texas to Alabama took thousands by surprise over the weekend.

Three tornadoes were reported in Alabama, and a funnel cloud was reported in Jackson County, FL, in a far-reaching stretch of bad weather that included tornadoes, high winds, torrential rain, and hail. Some areas had as much as five inches of rain on Friday night alone.

Car accidents and flying debris brought tragedy when four people died in car wrecks due to wet road conditions in Texas, and one woman died in Tuscaloosa, when she was hit by debris from a shattered billboard.

In Jefferson County, AL, a tornado cut a swath through a suburban area, severely damaging at least 35 homes, according to the Georgia Emergency Management Agency.

"Birmingham and Tuscaloosa both had damages," said Charlie Moeller, a Church World Service (CWS) disaster resource facilitator (DRF) who was in communication with emergency management officials to begin developing a response plan for faith-based agencies. The American Red Cross was meeting survivors' initial emergency needs.

Scott Adcock, public information manager for the Alabama Emergency Management Agency, confirmed Moeller's findings. "This was not what we would classify as a widespread event but we do have some significant damage," he said, adding that up to 100 homes could have sustained damage ranging from minor to severe.

The most concentrated damages occurred in Tuscaloosa and Jefferson counties. The city of Birmingham, located in Jefferson County, was a hard-hit area.

"There is both wind damage and flood damage to homes," said Adcock, but added that he did not anticipate major state resources being mobilized for this particular disaster. State troopers were called out to assist with traffic control and the Alabama Department of Transportation was mobilized to help clean up debris. "But largely this will be more of a situation of trying to assist individuals," said Adcock. "A lot of the damage seems to be to mobile homes."

Both Tuscaloosa and Birmingham have outdoor storm warning systems.

Emergency management officials plan to conduct a full on-ground assessment of both the Tuscaloosa and Birmingham areas on Monday.

Storms also caused damages elsewhere in the south. In Tennessee, streets briefly turned to rivers, and the National Guard was called out to help people, many in panic, evacuate safely. But, after waters quickly receded, the state reported little damage to residences, according to Tim Hooker, on-duty officer for the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency.

In Texas, the roof blew off a hangar at the Dallas-Fort Worth Airport. But, especially after severe and fatal flooding some 16 months ago, Texans were grateful to dodge this weather front. "We're okay," said Norm Hein, another CWS DRF.

"We did have minor damage in Florida. One tornado warning was issued for two counties," said Danny Pitchford, on-duty officer for the Florida Emergency Management Agency, who added that currently the wildfires were more of a concern in Florida than this latest storm.

Even before this latest storm struck, tornado or severe storm warnings had been issued in the southwest nearly every night for the past two weeks.

Spring marks the beginning of severe weather season for many parts of the U.S., but temperature trends have caused forecasters to redefine what is "typical" with regard to severe weather.

Traditionally, mid-westerners don't usually have to start worrying about severe weather until later in the season -- but this year is already an exception, with a tornado touching down in Milwaukee late Wednesday.

A record-breaking warm winter could mean an even worse severe weather season across the U.S., forecasters report.

Already, some unusual weather occurrences seem to be proving this theory. The tornado that touched down in Milwaukee was "unusual," said John Orgren, who oversees warning coordination for the National Weather Service.

Even the tornadoes that struck Georgia in February were "getting a little jump-start" on the normal severe weather season, he added.

The early onset of severe weather is due, in part, to the mild winter of 1999, he said.

The tornado that touched down in Milwaukee late Wednesday overturned vehicles and damaged structures.

Minor injuries were reported, and 40 blocks in a nearby neighborhood had to be evacuated while emergency crews repaired a natural gas leak.

The twister knocked down power lines but service was restored later in the evening. The twister headed out over Lake Michigan before it could cause catastrophic damage.

In mid-February, a twister ripped a swath through southern Georgia, killing 18 people and injuring 200. At least 60 homes were completely demolished, and 90 percent of those were mobile homes.

At that time, the northern Nashville area was also struck by either a tornado or high straight-line winds.

And in January, a tornado ripped through the town of Owensboro, KY destroying or severely damaged some 400 homes.

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