Where tornado dangers are known, they still stun

By Adam Ganucheau and Manny Fernandez / New York Times News Service

LOUISVILLE, Miss. — Ilene Estes sorted through the rubble atop a concrete slab here that used to be her home of 46 years. Like thousands of others in the South whose homes and lives have been devastated by a series of deadly tornadoes this week, she was stunned and weary.

Even in parts of the country where tornadoes are commonplace, when they directly hit your street, they are uncommon terrors, their savagery discovered as if for the first time.

“This just isn’t the kind of thing we’ve ever experienced,” said Estes, 74. “We have had storms in the rural areas around us, so we know what they can do, but I never could have imagined it would happen to us. I’ve always seen those kinds of things on TV but never in person.”

Every year, people in the southern and central United States brace for tornado season in a ritual of preparation and anticipation that has become a routine part of life, much as Floridians are used to hurricanes and Californians to earthquakes.

Those who live in Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi and other parts of the South prone to violent tornadoes even have a name for the region: Dixie Alley, a smaller counterpart to the more famous Tornado Alley, which includes parts of Oklahoma and Kansas.

But in the aftermath of a series of tornadoes throughout the South and Midwest that have left at least 35 people dead and thousands of homes and businesses destroyed since Sunday, the reality has become painfully clear: No one, even in Dixie Alley, gets used to it. Nothing is routine, and nothing can be taken for granted, even safe rooms. In Mayflower and Vilonia, two of the hardest-hit towns in Arkansas, at least three people appeared to have been killed in safe rooms in their homes, including a 72-year-old woman who died after debris tore through the door of her room.

Estes and her husband survived, but not at home: They drove to the community storm shelter at the Winston County, Miss., courthouse. Their daughter, Cherie Bell, who lives an hour away in Columbus, had been watching the storm coverage on television and called to warn them.

Estes said the phone call had probably saved their lives. She and her husband had been watching the storm coverage, too, but kept losing reception on their television.

“I am just so thankful that Cherie called us, and we were able to get out of harm’s way,” she said. “If we hadn’t left, I’m not sure we would have made it. We knew there was a storm coming, but we had no idea how big it was.”

After killing at least 15 people in Arkansas on Sunday, the violent storm system moved east and struck parts of Alabama, Mississippi and Tennessee on Monday, killing at least 17 people. The Mississippi Emergency Management Agency said 12 people had died there. Fatalities have also been reported in Iowa and Oklahoma.

At least nine of the deaths in Mississippi were in Winston County, which includes Louisville and is about 95 miles south of Tupelo. Eight of those deaths were in Louisville, an industrial town of about 7,000 known for its steel-lift manufacturing plant and lumber facilities.

“To see the destruction here, for the fatality number to be as low as it is, it’s truly amazing,” said Will Hill, the mayor of Louisville. “We had people sign into the courthouse’s shelter, so the number of just how many people were actually there will be coming out in the days ahead. I actually was at the courthouse right when the storm was over, and it was packed.”

Brian Corbett, a spokesman for Alabama’s emergency management agency, said it had confirmed three deaths — two in Limestone County and one in Tuscaloosa County — but was seeing reports of additional fatalities. The University of Alabama said that one of the dead was a student, John Servati, a member of its swim team.

In Mississippi, even as Estes and other residents of Louisville sorted through the rubble Tuesday, there was already talk of rebuilding. Nobody discussed moving away. The towns that are prone to tornadoes are the same towns where people have spent generations raising their families.

“I haven’t had much time to think about it, but I guess we will rebuild on this same property,” said Zenita Allen as she stood at the edge of her destroyed home.

Allen, 65, said she had been in her bedroom Monday when she noticed that the strong wind and rain that been blowing through had stopped. Then she heard a low, rumbling noise. She ran into the kitchen to turn off the stove. Part of a tree broke through a window and landed near her.

She crouched under the bar in the kitchen, while her husband took cover in a bathroom behind the house. He had to hold up one wall to prevent it from caving in on him.

Still, Allen spoke of staying put as she picked through the destruction.

“Now that we have gone through something like this, we’ll know what could happen,” she said. “And I know we’ll take certain things into consideration, like a storm cellar.”

No one who lives in a place that has been hit by tornadoes before believes they will be next. Tornadoes are localized events, and even the worst affect specific streets and neighborhoods, surrounded by larger areas that go untouched.

Harold Brooks, a senior research scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Severe Storms Laboratory in Norman, Okla., said people tended to develop a sense of “place-based danger” about tornadoes.

“When my wife and I moved here in 1990, there was a lady who was probably 90 years old and lived across the street from us,” said Brooks, who lives in Norman. “We realized if she had lived in that house all her life and looked only out her front door, she would never have seen a significant tornado her entire life. And she lived near the most tornado-prone place on the planet. If she’d looked out the back, she would have seen one — in 1949.”