Lessons from the wreckage: How Alabama could help tornado preparedness
Meteorologists are combing through the damage from last week's historic tornado outbreak in Alabama, hoping to find clues about how to save more lives in the future.
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The sedans – if they can be found – give additional measure of a storm's strength.Skip to next paragraph
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"We ran into a family in Oak Grove, Ala., who had a very well-built home, and fortunately they weren't home" when a twister struck, Darden recalls. "It was a two-story brick house, probably the best-built house I saw in four days of surveying."
Still, the home was totaled. Curiously, the father's Crown Victoria, which had been at the house at the time, was missing. No one has been able to find it.
"We don't know what happened to it," Darden says. "Did it get disintegrated by the tornado? Did it get sucked up into the vortex and get carried four or five miles away and we just can't find it?"
The owner said he had GPS in the car and half-jokingly wondered if it still worked, Darden says.
Ground surveys put researchers up close and personal with destroyed homes and people who have lost family and friends to the tornado outbreak.
Rigorous analysis can reveal how well homes fared whose walls were anchored firmly to their foundations or whose roofing timbers were reinforced with metal straps where they join walls.
It's also a boots-on-the-ground view that revealed a 25 foot section of asphalt in one neighborhood yanked up from the street and deposited on a house a half mile away.
It was in a neighborhood where many homes carried markings Darden says he hasn't seen before.
"This is where I kind of lost it," he says. He had asked about the 0/- painted on whatever was available at each home. "The guy said the one on the left is the number of survivors."
Investigators also confront the confounding effects of twisters. Credit cards embedded in steel refrigerator doors. A mobile home lifted from its foundation and deposited hundreds of yards away, while planters hugging the home's perimeter are still filled with vibrantly colored flowers, every flower undamaged, every nugget of bark mulch as neatly in place as if nothing had happened.
Survivors recount similar stories.
Darden describes a family of five who lived on a farm outside of Higdon, Ala., a small community in the northern part of the state. They had no storm shelter, but they did live in a home that he says was well-built.
On Saturday, Darden and a partner visited the family.
"The mother and three daughters were there at the time," he recalls. Looking at the wall-free ground floor -- all that remained of the home -- "I introduced myself and said: Thank God y'all were not home."
Her response? "Oh, we were here."
With no storm shelter and nothing but a slab foundation left, "I really thought she was joking," he continues. "I asked: Where were you at?"
She led the two men to a spot on the storm-swept slab, where nothing but a small patch of hardwood flooring and a scrap of carpeting remained – parts of each pulled up by the tornado. The rest of the flooring vanished into the vortex and hasn't been found. The patch is all that was left of the interior hallway in which the family huddled.
"They were not touched," he says, in a voice tinged with amazement. "They were not sucked up. They didn't have a scratch on them."