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CLAY, Ala. — Violent weather including possible tornadoes roared across the heart of Alabama on Monday, injuring more than 100 people and killing at least two, including a man who lived in an area devastated by a deadly twister outbreak in the spring.
The storms flattened homes and peeled off roofs in the middle of the night in the rural community of Oak Grove near Birmingham. As dawn broke, residents surveyed the damage and began cleaning up across parts of central Alabama, an area that has a history of tornadoes going back decades.
In a sign Alabama has become all too familiar with severe weather, officials had to reschedule a meeting Monday to receive a report on their response to the spring twisters. Alabama’s governor declared a state of emergency for the entire state.
Oak Grove was hit hard in April when tornadoes killed about 240 people statewide, though officials said none of the same neighborhoods was struck again.
Amber Butler and her family hid in her sister’s brick home as the storm approached about 3:30 a.m. Butler’s own home was destroyed.
“I just so speechless now, I don’t know what to do,” she said. “God Bless our friends and neighbors who have come to help. We’ve lost everything we had.”
Butler lived near 83-year-old Bobby Frank Sims, who was killed when his home was leveled by a tree.
In Clay, northeast of Birmingham, 16-year-old Christina Nicole Heichelbech died, the Jefferson County coroner’s office said. Rescue workers said her parents were injured.
“Some roads are impassable, there are a number of county roads where you have either debris down, trees down, damage from homes,” said Yasamie Richardson, a spokeswoman for the Alabama Emergency Management Agency.
The storm system stretched from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico, producing hail, strong winds and rain. Possible tornadoes were reported in Arkansas on Sunday night.
In Alabama, searchers went door-to-door calling out to residents, many of whom were trapped by trees that crisscrossed their driveways.
Stevie Sanders woke up around 3:30 a.m. and realized bad weather was on the way. She, her parents and sister hid in the laundry room of their brick home in Clay as the wind howled and trees started cracking outside.
“You could feel the walls shaking and you could hear a loud crash. After that it got quiet, and the tree had fallen through my sister’s roof,” said Sanders.
The family was OK, and her father, Greg Sanders, spent the next hours raking his roof and pulling away pieces of broken lumber.
“It could have been so much worse,” he said. “It’s like they say, we were just blessed.”
Jefferson County, where Oak Grove and Clay are located, suffered the most damage, followed by Chilton County, with most of the damage around Maplesville.
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Oak Grove, a sprawling unincorporated area in the western part of the county was nearly wiped out on April 8, 1998, by a powerful tornado that killed 34 people and left about 260 people injured. It spread a wide path of destruction that left much of the previously heavily wooded western section of the county looking barren. The tornado destroyed Oak Grove High School, which has been rebuilt.
This general section of Jefferson County has been infamous for destructive tornadoes dating back to the 1930s.
State Climatologist John Christy said there seems to be a general path from central Mississippi going into north Alabama that gets attention for a large number of tornadoes — and their intensity. One theory has to do with the distance from the Gulf of Mexico, just far enough to be effected by cold air coming from the north.
“It’s the frequency and intensity of the storms that tend to align on this corridor,” said Christy, a professor at the University of Alabama in Huntsville
The mayor of Maplesville, about 45 miles south of Birmingham, said a storm came through about 5 a.m., downing many trees and causing major damage to about five buildings.
More than 50 people were in the town’s storm shelter next door to the fire department when the winds blew the top of a sweet gum tree, about one-foot in diameter, on to the steel building, but no damage was done and no one was injured.
“The shelter did what it was supposed to do,” Mayor Aubrey Latham said.
The town built the dome-shaped shelter about five years ago with a FEMA grant because of past tornadoes that had hit the area.