They had known that tornadoes were in the forecast, but it wasn’t until a newscaster said a twister had been spotted just west of them that they realized how bad it might be. “Get in your safe place,” the newscaster had said, but all they had was their trailer. So they knelt in the closet and prayed.
Sunday’s tornadoes in Alabama have been called a meteorological success story. They were forecast days in advance, shelters were opened hours before they hit, and a warning was issued 10 minutes before the first twister arrived in Beauregard.
But 23 people were killed — more than were killed by tornadoes in the United States in all of 2018.
Places like Beauregard — low-density areas where many residents live in mobile homes — face serious challenges in trying to prevent such fatalities. There is one designated shelter in this rural community of 10,000. Most residents who waited for the last-minute warnings would not have been able to make it to the building before the EF-4 tornado struck, bringing hail, downpours and 170 mph winds.
This is not the first time the community has grappled with storm safety. After a series of deadly tornadoes pummeled the Southeast in 2011, Lee County, where Beauregard is located, received a federal grant to build shelters in residents’ homes. It also has an outstanding application for federal dollars to build another community shelter.
Efforts to build those additional shelters have stalled, county officials said. And even with federal assistance, individual storm shelters are out of financial reach for most residents.
“There had been discussion before” about such safety measures, said Richard LaGrand, a newly elected county commissioner for the district that includes Beauregard. “But, I can promise you, not discussion like there will be. And action.”
But the breadth of action needed is daunting.
The mobile homes common in the hardest-hit area of the town don’t hold up well under high winds, said John van de Lindt, a professor of engineering at Colorado State University who was living in Alabama in 2011 when the tornadoes killed 250 people in the state in a single day. Even mobile homes that are well-anchored with ties that go into the foundation would probably not be strong enough to withstand a storm of the kind that hit Lee County, which could destroy even the sturdiest buildings.
Before the storm, Alabama state Rep. Tommy Harris (R) proposed statewide legislation that would give a $6,000 tax credit over three years to homeowners who build safe rooms, or $25,000 for a community shelter that might serve a neighborhood of mobile homes.
While praising the initiative, Laura Myers, director of the Center for Advanced Public Safety at the University of Alabama, expressed some skepticism over whether residents would follow through. There was a similar effort after the 2011 tornadoes, she said, but retrofitting a home can be difficult.
“It goes back to public perception,” Myers said. “ ‘Well, do I really need that?’ ”
But Timothy Marshall, an engineer and meteorologist with Haag Engineering, said the untold story is how many people rode out the Moore, Okla., tornado in 2013 in shelters, adding that personal shelters have proliferated in the Oklahoma City area. Even mobile homes, Marshall said, can be equipped with simple porch shelters.
“There is no reason for people to die in their home during a tornado,” he said.
Rita Smith, spokeswoman for the Lee County Emergency Management Agency, said Lee County has sought to make more shelters available in recent years. In the wake of the 2011 tornadoes, Lee County received part of a Hazard Mitigation Grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to help 19 people in the county build shelters in their homes.
“But it’s a really difficult and tedious process,” Smith said. Homeowners must pay upfront for the shelters, which typically cost several thousand dollars, and can only get reimbursed for up to 75 percent of the price. All of which makes the measure unaffordable for most residents of the county, where the median household income is about $45,000, Smith said.
More recently, Lee County’s Emergency Management Agency submitted an application for FEMA funds to build another community shelter. But the application process has been painfully slow, Smith said.
Public shelters have drawbacks too: People must take heed of early warnings — and there must be somebody on hand to unlock a shelter door.
“You need outreach, education and training before the storm,” said Marc Levitan, a research wind engineer with the National Institute of Standards and Technology.
Bobby Kilgore, a police captain in nearby Opelika, said officials are grappling with how to get weather-weary citizens to seek shelter when a watch is issued even if experience has taught them that there is a very low chance of being hit.
“Once the siren goes off, it is already too late,” he said.
It can be very dangerous to travel to a public shelter in the few minutes before a tornado hits.
“You don’t want people getting in their car and driving,” van de Lindt said.
Lee County has been aggressive in pushing out information via social media, weather radios and television, Myers said. But the fact that the storm came on a Sunday probably hampered preparedness, with people’s routines and communications different than during the week.
The evening before the twister hit, the Lee County Emergency Management Agency posted the locations of three shelters. Two were on the Auburn University campus. The only one in Beauregard was Providence Baptist Church, about two miles from the worst-hit area.
Providence Baptist Pastor Rusty Sowell said the church building was constructed to be a “center for a community in crisis.” A satellite building is equipped with bathrooms, including showers, and a full-service kitchen, and the basement of the sanctuary provides room for as many as 150 people.
The alert came in the middle of services. Sowell announced that the shelter would open.
Church member Stephanie Dunson heard the advice, but like most of her neighbors, she had endured bad weather before. She went home, made lunch, poured herself a cup of coffee and prepared for an afternoon on the couch watching NBC’s “This is Us.” Then her phone buzzed: another tornado warning. When she checked a local news channel, forecasters predicted it would head straight for her community.
“I was being a little complacent,” she said later. “I fussed a little. I didn’t want to go.”
But she kept hearing a voice — God’s voice, she said — telling her to take shelter. Reluctantly, she put her four dogs in crates in the living room and told her daughter to get in the car. The winds picked up, pushing her little Malibu back and forth across the road until she arrived at the church.
Inside, people’s phones shrilled incessantly. The basement’s thick walls blocked the wind, but they could hear the wail of sirens. Some prayed. Others cried. No one could help but worry about what they would find when they left.
It took Dunson and her daughter hours to get back home; the roads were blocked by fallen trees. Many houses were destroyed. But just one tree had fallen on Dunson’s roof, causing minimal damage. And her dogs were alive.
“God protected me,” she said three days later, standing in the church basement that had sheltered her. But she couldn’t keep from crying. “I feel guilty,” she said. “Because I don’t understand why He didn’t protect people somewhere else.”