Safe from the Storm: A CBS42 weather special

(WIAT) — One of the scariest sounds in Alabama may be when the tornado sirens start wailing. Severe weather in the state is never a laughing matter, with storms that injure, destroy and leave families running for shelter.

The CBS42 weather team looked at some of the weather events that have struck our area, from the property damage and lessons learned to the technology we use to help keep you safe.

We never take severe weather lightly. Our meteorologists take you into the clouds with this special report, and when the skies clear, count on us to break down the best ways to keep you and your family safe from the storm.

Part 1: Remembering Jan. 23rd

by Mark Prater

It wasn’t the super tornado outbreak of April 27th, 2011, but for some Center Point residents, it was just as bad.

In the early morning hours of Jan. 23rd, 2012, the city of Center Point was hit directly by an EF-3 tornado. For Rico Cosby and his family, the terror of a tornado became all too real.

“The look on my mom’s face when I think about it…and you know how we had to get down into our basement and tuck our heads, not knowing what was going on and all those loud noises–it was pretty terrifying,” Cosby said.

In only seconds, the storm left a scar through the community.

“When the tornado tore through the valley here in Center Point, a lot of homes were affected,” CBS42 Chief Meteorologist Mark Prater recalled. “Some completely destroyed, but [restaurant Green Acres is] one of the favorite local spots that weathered the storm, but they also felt the impact.”

Green Acres, a simple and quaint restaurant, took a glancing blow from the storm, even flooding the whole building after it was damaged. While today it’s still bust, it was those who are a part of the restaurant family that helped get it back on its feet again.

“A lot of debris and stuff everywhere,” Jacqueline Ford with Green Acres described the restaurant after the tornado passed. “The glass was knocked out, the roof was messed up–it basically messed us up in the front of the restaurant. At first you’re like, ok tornadoes. You don’t think about it if you’ve never experienced it.

But the staff didn’t let the damage keep them down.

“Thinking about how we had to rebuild back–and for 3 months we were closed–but we did come back and we’ve come back stronger, so it’s a good thing,” Ford reflected.

And for those who just stop in to eat or just say hello, the memory of the tornado is never far from their mind, and the reminders still haunt the valley. But like many communties hit by tragedy, often a resilience comes that it hadn’t had before. Five years later, the businesses and the city still benefit from that night of terror.

“And I’m very thankful that the neighborhood came together as one. And we’ve been that way ever since. God lets us all know he was here,” Center Point resident Douglas Hawthorne said.

Part 2: Lightning and house fires

by Ashley Gann

During severe weather, lightning can strike at any time, and leave behind devastation. The Anderson family experienced that two years ago. John Anderson says they were at home waiting out a thunderstorm when it happened.

“It made a loud boom, I mean, just shook everything, but, at that time, we didn’t know what it had hit,” Anderson recalled.

Anderson says his neighbors saw flames coming out of the garage, and ran to help them escape.

“They were beating on our front door, saying ‘Y’all are on fire! Y’all are on fire!’ Well, when they come in, me and the lady’s husband and son, and we go out the back door there’s a garage out here that joins the house, it had struck that building,” Anderson explained.

The neighbors got John’s wife and disabled daughter, affectionately known as “Miss Beth,” out safely. In the meantime, John and his neighbors ttried to put out the blaze with a garden hose, but it was too late.

“We sustained significant damage, burned through the roof, all up in our attic was burned,” Anderson remembered. “The ceiling, roofing and everything had fell [sic] on the bed and burnt through the roof here and then you could actually see the sky you know.”

While most of their home and possessions were lost in the fire, there were a few things left untouched, like the place John calls his “Bama Room.”

“I’ve got programs here, back from 1964,” he said.

While John says the rebuilding process went smoothly and they’ve got an even better house to show for it, he does have some advice for anyone the next time severe weather rolls through.

“Don’t take for granted that it didn’t do damage,” he warned. “Go out and inspect. I know, I, like I say, didn’t have any idea that we were on fire, if it hadn’t been for our neighbors.”

Part 3: The new CBS42 Weather Alert Unit

The CBS42 weather team is dedicated to providing our viewers with weather coverage you can count on. Our brand new CBS42 Weather Alert Unit is likely the most advanced in the country. It is a vehicle designed specifically to go into the storm and collect essential data like temperature, windspeed and rainfall totals–all the information we need while providing severe weather coverage.

Not only will it provide state-of-the-art information to our weather specialist and meteorologists out in the field and at the station, but we’re excited to take it on the road! We’ll be stopping by schools and events so you can check out the CBS42 Weather Alert Unit in person.

Part 4: The work of first responders

by Nate Harrington 

Lots of things changed on April 27, 2011. Lives were lost, homes were destroyed and families were ripped apart. But there was one constant: first responders were trying to turn chaos into calm.

Two of those first responders were firefighter Tony Steele, then with the Webster’s Chapel volunteer fire department in Calhoun County, and Calhoun County Sheriff Matthew Wade, who was Chief Deputy at the time.

“Unbelievable devastation in such a short period of time,” Steele remembered.

Both knew of the destruction that already took place in other parts of the state, but neither knew they would both have to deal with the wrath of an EF-4 tornado.

“It was scary. My family was just..they didn’t know what to do. That’s when we came up here and were prepared to hunker down,” Steele said.

Steele, along with several residents of Webster’s Chapel, had to take shelter in the church across the street from the fire station. The fire station was destroyed, but the church suffered just a broken window.  After the shock of surviving the massive tornado wore off, Steele and other first responders in Calhoun County began a mission, which started with teamwork.

“Nobody was arguing about whose jurisdiction it was or who could do what, it was let’s get the job done, and that’s a great feeling,” Sheriff Matthew Wade said.

“These surrounding communities are full of really good people. They work together. By 8, 9 o’clock that night, it had gotten dark, I had emergency vehicles everywhere, ambulances,” Steele recalled.

Essentially every agency in Calhoun County responded to the impacted areas, which stretched from the west side of the county near Big Oak Ranch to Webster’s Chapel near the Etowah County line.

Sheriff Wade says the response was overwhelming and the mission to locate the missing or injured was done with a servant’s mentality.
“Everybody that was affected in the path of that tornado, law enforcement agencies, and firemen, came from all over and it took less than 24 hours to check and clear every house in the affected areas across our county. That’s amazing,” Wade reflected.

Despite the teamwork that was shown, a grim reality came to light the next day. Eight lives were lost. Houses were swept clean off their foundations. It made everyone think about the next time this could happen.

“I guess it humbles you, makes you think about tomorrow. As everyone says you hug your kids and kiss your wife today, because tomorrow is not guaranteed,” Steele said.

But even in the face of the unknown, first responders in Calhoun County are ready. Ready to show that with a servant’s heart, in the face of crisis, the community comes first.

“We couldn’t undo the damage done by the tornado or recover the lives that were lost, but serving those that were affected, made us proud,” Wade explained.


There are even more stories you can watch in Safe from the Storm, the CBS42 Weather Special. Get a look inside the CBS42 Weather Alert Unit with Ashley, Michael and Sarah, and learn about the EF scales used to rate the intensity of tornados, and see how the storms have changed the availability of storm shelters for residents of the Pratt City community. 

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