Violent winds rip apart homes, buildings
By DON FLETCHER
News Staff Writer
More than a dozen families in Big Oak Trailer Park continued this week the task of literally and figuratively picking up the pieces of their lives after a Friday, March 18, storm system spawned savage straight-line winds that destroyed or significantly damaged at least nine mobile homes.
Conflicting reports in the immediate aftermath of the wind damage were that six people were injured seriously enough to be taken by Medstar ambulance to area hospitals for treatment. But a National Weather Service storm survey team that visited the site on Saturday reported that 10 people were injured enough to require some degree of medical treatment.
Escambia County Sheriff Heath Jackson said it was miracle that nobody lost his or her life when the violent winds, gusting at between 90 and 100 mph, came roaring into the mobile home community — roughly eight miles north of Atmore, near Poarch and McCullough and just a few yards off Jack Springs Road — around 9:04 a.m. as torrential rains pelted the area.
“It’s devastating, and those people have nothing left,” Jackson said of the Big Oak residents who lived in the trailers destroyed or nearly destroyed. “We are so thankful that nobody was killed or severely injured.”
Atmore Fire Chief Ron Peebles, who deployed some of his personnel to assist with the trailer-by-trailer search for survivors while others were sent to fight a fire that damaged an Atmosphere Road residence, agreed with the sheriff.
“I had a bad feeling when we first got to the scene,” he said. “Some of those, I didn’t know how the people lived through it. I guess the good Lord above was watching out for them.”
Peebles noted, too, that last Friday’s severe weather event was the first of its kind he remembered since March 16, 2014, almost eight years to the day before the recent storm. Straight-line winds tore through Atmore on that Sunday. That tempest caused widespread damage from Atmore to Canoe, including the collapse of the former Kmart building, which at that time housed Fred’s and Burkes Outlet. Luckily, both stores were closed when the storms hit.
“(Last Friday’s storm) is probably the biggest one I’ve seen, as far as straight-line winds,” Peebles recalled. “The only other one I’ve dealt with is the one that knocked down the old Kmart building.”
Jackson said one of the residents got a rude awakening, in more ways than one.
“We had one guy who was in his mobile home when the storm hit,” the sheriff told reporters. “He was asleep. He said when he woke up, he was in the woods.”
According to the NWS’s survey summary, “a narrow swath of intense wind gusts … affected a mobile home park where several mobile homes were rolled/destroyed.” Wind gusts also wreaked havoc on the area near the park, uprooting or breaking trees and damaging or ripping off the roofs of several houses and farm buildings, the survey team reported.
One of the toppled trees fell at the edge of a second mobile home park, Quarry Village, on the same side of the road and just a few yards north of Big Oak. That community escaped without damage. Another tree fell across power lines at Judson Cemetery, causing a power outage in parts of northern Atmore and across the Poarch Band of Creek Indians reservation.
Jack Springs Road was closed from Poarch Road to the site of the ravaged mobile home park as emergency personnel poured into the area to lend a hand. Local first responders who completed their tasks had to drive north to McCullough and take Alabama 21 to get back to Atmore.
Police and fire units from Poarch and Atmore responded to the weather catastrophe, as did several state troopers. Sheriff’s deputies also rushed to the site, as did Alabama Department of Corrections and Alabama Department of Transportation personnel.
Local American Red Cross volunteer Sandra Gray said the agency is providing “financial, disaster, medical and spiritual assistance” to those affected by the storm.
The conclusion reached by the NWS investigators: “The survey team found no evidence of convergence, with all damage laid out in a southwest-to-northeast swath, suggesting straight-line wind damage.”
Several people who commented on the Atmore News Facebook page disagreed with those findings. One of them, Andrea McGhee, said she is a Skywarn Storm Spotter with advanced NWS training.
“I saw the rotation myself,” McGhee commented.
“We never got a warning,” said area resident Sam Peacock, who added that, “As soon as I heard the hail, I knew it was bad.”
Escambia County Emergency Management Agency Director David Adams said NWS provided as much warning as it usually does in such instances..
“There was no tornado in this event, so no tornado warning was issued,” Adams said. “However, the area was under a severe thunderstorm warning at the time of the event. The … warning was issued at 0832 on Friday morning. The damage occurred near 0900. The area was also under a tornado watch that was issued at 0733 on Friday morning.”