By Donna Thornton/News Editor
The day after powerful winds and an EF1 tornado passed through Etowah and surrounding counties, people were at work trying to clean up and repair property and officials were busy trying to assess the damage.
State Rep. Craig Ford called a press conference with county officials after touring many areas of the county with state Emergency Management Director Art Franklin, to talk about the damage, the possibility of assistance and the enforcement of laws to protect property after the storm.
Ford said he wanted the people of Etowah County to know that he would be doing anything he could from a legislative standpoint to bring assistance to the county.
Etowah County Sheriff Todd Entrekin and Gadsden-Etowah EMA Director Mike Bryant said their personnel are keeping up with mileage and expenses related to their storm response, so that those costs can be assessed if the county is considered for any kind of disaster declaration. However, Bryant said, the damage threshold is quite high and may not be met despite the widespread damage.
Ford said a number of businesses, many in the Rainbow City area, had storm damage, which might trigger some assistance from the Small Business Administration, which can also provide help in residential areas, because of its interest in getting people back to work.
Bryant said the worst damages were in the Smith’s Institute community near Sardis, where five homes, four of them mobile homes, were destroyed and another home was heavily damaged. Several people were injured when a mobile home was picked up and thrown into an unoccupied house.
The National Weather Service determined it was an EF1 tornado that struck in northern Etowah County. However, as Bryant said before that determination was made, it makes little difference if whether a tornado or straight line winds caused the destruction; it is destruction regardless.
There were a number of near misses, Bryant said: a resident who had not made it home from work when the storm hit their home, and a man who’d just left to go to work when the winds picked up his mobile home and threw it across a field.
The Etowah County Sheriff’s Office set up a command post at Bethlehem Church in the Sardis area and planned to man it around the clock for security reasons until power is restored.
In the Gadsden area, he said, there were about 11 injuries in the Gadsden area. One, a 13-year-old Whorton Bend boy was injured when a tree limb fell on him just after he and his sister had gotten off the school bus. His injuries required surgery, but he is expected to make a full recovery.
None of the injuries report, Bryant said, were life threatening.
Two school buses were trapped by falling trees, one on Rocky Hollow Road and the other on Tumlin Gap Road, Entrekin said. Responders had to walk in through the downed trees to make sure no one was hurt. One bus had no children on board, he said, but he was not sure about the other one.
The Country Club and Whorton’s Bend areas were hard hit, and almost every community in the county suffered some damage. Two homes were destroyed in the downtown Gadsden area; some incurred heavy damage in Rainbow City and Altoona. There was a broken gas line in Hokes Bluff, and reports of a broken water line in Attalla.
Entrekin said one of the most challenging aspects of this weather event was how widespread damage was. Usually one jurisdiction can send personnel to help another, on March 18, he said, every area was dealing with their own problems. Still Entrekin and other county officials praised the cooperative efforts from public works employees, rescue squad members, and volunteer fire department. A couple of churches in the Sardis area with their own tree crews, Etowah County Commissioner Larry Payne said during the morning’s commission meeting, came out to help.
Many of those who sustained damage are insured, Ford said, but even with insurance, there is a state law giving the insured – regardless of their insurance company — $500 for tree removal. At one residence, Ford said, there is one tree on a house and 19 trees down in the yard, and $500 will cover little of the cost of removing them.
Cities will help, Ford said, if trees are down on the right of way and if trees hanging over the roadways create a hazard.
Shelter was made available for people at the Sardis Fire Hall, and at the First Baptist Church of Sardis, Bryant said, but it seemed most people displaced by damage to their homes had somewhere to go.
The local chapter of the American Red Cross set up shelters including on at Elliott Community Center in Gadsden, and had volunteers out canvassing in affected neighbors to provide water, tarps, clean up kits and other items for those who had minor damage.
In the Gadsden area, hotels rooms were hard to come by in the days immediately following the storm, and power outages continued in several areas.
Bryant said Alabama Power estimated it would have power restored sometime today (March 22).