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Storm-battered town hit twice in a year

By David Ariosto, CNN
updated 1:40 PM EST, Sun March 4, 2012
Harvest, Alabama, was devastated by a tornado on Friday, for the fourth time since 1974.
Harvest, Alabama, was devastated by a tornado on Friday, for the fourth time since 1974.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Harvest, Alabama, has a history of coping with tornado damage
  • Town residents are trying to recover after apparent tornadoes leveled parts of Harvest
  • Residents were still repairing their homes from last year when the storms hit
  • 55% of Alabama was hit by the storms last April, authorities say

(CNN) -- In 1974, a series of powerful tornadoes whipped through Alabama and devastated a small town called Harvest.

It happened again in 1994, and then again last April.

Kathleen Graves was there for all three.

"We're sort of a tornado magnet," she said, her voice quaking as she surveyed the damage to her neighborhood caused by the latest major storm system to hit her community.

"I'm basically starting to rebuild, just like I did last year."

Graves, 56, and her husband, Buddy, were still reconstructing their home smashed by April's tornadoes when an apparent twister barreled through town on Friday.

"My son called me and said there's one coming up Capshaw Road," she said. "I could hear the ground rumbling. So I stepped outside with my coffee and I saw it."

Turning to her neighbor, she asked, "Jim, is that a tornado?"

Tornadoes and hail captured on camera

"Hell yeah," he responded. "Run!"

What happened next for Graves seemed a blur.

"I ran through my front door and out the back toward my neighbor's storm shelter. It was almost like I had blinders on," she told CNN Saturday. "I wasn't looking where that funnel was, I was just running."

Moments later, the pair flung open the shelter's metal door and descended underground as powerful gusts swirled overheard.

About 15 minutes later, it was over.

Surveying the damage, Graves said her front porch and a section of her roof were gone. Much of the house's siding had also been cleaved off, rooms were damaged and carpets were soaked.

"I was lucky," said Graves. "We didn't lose any of our neighbors this time. They didn't die this time."

The state's emergency management agency said Saturday that at least one person had died and 11 others were injured in Alabama after Friday's storm. The apparent tornado outbreak also killed dozens of others across the nation, leveling communities from Texas to Indiana and up through North Carolina.

Seventeen counties in Alabama reported moderate to heavy damage, including Madison County, where the town of Harvest is located.

"Last year two people died right there on that corner," said restaurant owner Kim Shelton, referring to a nearby intersection in town.

Shelton, 47, who runs the Harvest House Restaurant on a storm-damaged block, said the region has grown somewhat accustomed to treacherous weather.

During last year's storms, she said, her store was damaged and lost power, but continued to serve food on open grills in its parking lot until National Guardsmen arrived three days later with much-needed aid.

"This is a close-knit community," she said.

Harvest House has also become a neighborhood meeting spot of sorts, and is located roughly a quarter of a mile from Graves' home in an area where several other houses were damaged Friday.

"It destroyed my trailer," said resident Nancy Lawson, who had fled to seek shelter with her daughter in the neighboring town of Madison when she heard news of the approaching weather.

Less than a year ago, her home -- a house that she and her family had built -- was destroyed in a similar storm.

"It was a nice house. I didn't have much money and no insurance, and so FEMA gave me the trailer."

In 2011, the Federal Emergency Management Agency dispatched disaster assistance, including trailers, after April storms tore through houses, downed trees and scattered debris across Alabama.

But after Friday's storms, Lawson said her year-old trailer had been rendered unlivable.

"I'm 75 years old and I'm tired," she said. "It just makes me feel real tired."

Mostly weary of the weather, Lawson says she now has plans to look for a place in Tennessee.

"I just trust in God."

Back at the Harvest House, conversations were abuzz Saturday with talk of the storm.

"It basically followed the same path it followed on April 27th," said Fred Allen Wilson, a 67-year-old retiree and long-time restaurant patron.

"It just got them again," he said of his neighbors. "People are walking around dumbfounded."

Wilson, whose house survived Friday's storms, said last year's tornado cost him more than $40,000 in home damages.

"How much more of this are we going to take?" he said. "Some are saying, 'That's enough,' and don't planning on coming back."

Harvest is in the so-called "Dixie Alley," a collection of Southern states, which includes Alabama, where warm-air moisture from the Gulf of Mexico mixes with cold air sweeping down from Canada. The mixture is thought to foster conditions suited for tornadic activity.

"When the seasons change, warm and cold air are fighting more," said CNN Meteorologist Monica O'Connor. "That increases the chances."

But the specific path tornadoes take is "largely happenstance."

State authorities say Alabama historically has been prone to the storms, and encourage residents to develop emergency plans for the start of what's commonly referred to as "tornado season."

"We always know that starting in March we'll likely have tornadoes," said state emergency management spokeswoman Yasamie August.

"Fifty-five percent of Alabama was hit by the storms last April, so it's pretty likely that we'll have had some repeat hits this year."

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