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Alabama begins to recover after Thursday's tornadoes

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

People in Alabama this weekend are mourning and turning to recovery after thunderstorms and tornadoes hit that state and Georgia on Thursday. More than half a dozen people died. Troy Public Radio's Kyle Gassiott joins us now from Montgomery. Kyle, thanks for being with us.

KYLE GASSIOTT, BYLINE: Good morning, Scott.

SIMON: You were in Autauga County, Ala., yesterday, 35 miles north of Montgomery. This is where, unfortunately, most of the fatalities happened. Please tell us what you saw.

GASSIOTT: Scott, I was in Old Kingston, the part of the county that was hit the worst. It was a formerly wooded area, and now those trees are almost completely destroyed, along with many houses and cars. When I got there, it was very cold and windy. I saw all these bonfires, which I later realized were the trees the storm had blown down being burned. One of the bonfires was in front of Cindy and John Cox's house. On Thursday, they had just come home from a doctor's visit when the alarm sounded. Cindy says they got into their safe place, and that's when she heard the tornado overhead.

CINDY COX: That is true, what they say - it does roar like a train.

SIMON: Kyle, how did the Coxes come through the storm?

GASSIOTT: Well, Scott, Cindy was understandably scared.

COX: I was really upset in my closet and on my chair. And feeling that shake and hearing that roar, you just hope it don't take the roof with it.

GASSIOTT: But the Coxes say they're grateful because they came out alive with little damage to their house. Some of their neighbors didn't make it.

SIMON: Kyle, for those of us who are in other parts of the country, how common are tornadoes in Alabama in January?

GASSIOTT: They're common, but this type is not. I spoke with meteorologist Gerald Satterwhite, and he said, while tornadoes happen in Alabama in January, one this deadly and able to go the distance on the ground that this one went is rare.

GERALD SATTERWHITE: The average is around 5 miles or so. And this tornado is going to be much higher than that. We could be looking at, you know, 50 miles or more.

GASSIOTT: He says debris from this tornado shot up into the air as high as 15,000 feet.

SIMON: And, Kyle, I understand the emergency alert the National Weather Service gave for this storm is also rare.

GASSIOTT: Yeah, when the storm got to Autauga County, the Weather Service issued a tornado emergency alert, which was new to me. Satterwhite explained that this designation came about in the '90s, to describe situations in which a severe threat to human life is imminent or ongoing.

SIMON: And one of the first places the tornado struck was Selma, a city, of course, that is rich in the history of the civil rights movement. And traditionally, Selma holds events to commemorate Martin Luther King Jr. Day, which is on Monday. Do we know if the city can still do that?

GASSIOTT: Well, Scott, Selma took a hard hit from the storm. No fatalities were reported there, thankfully. But schools were closed yesterday and there's just debris everywhere. Faya Ora Rose Toure, who for the past 30 years has organized the annual bridge crossing commemorating the 1965 Bloody Sunday March for Voting Rights, called Selma a war zone.

FAYA ORA ROSE TOURE: The thing about this storm - it didn't discriminate. You have low-income communities hit hard. You have middle-class communities hit hard. You have the white community hit hard. You have the Black community hit hard.

GASSIOTT: You know, Scott, Dr. King spent a lot of time in Selma and participated in the march to the state capitol in Montgomery. Toure says that as destructive as this storm was, Selma still plans to hold its annual march to the foot of the Edmund Pettus Bridge on Monday.

SIMON: Troy Public Radio's Kyle Gassiott. Thanks so much, Kyle.

GASSIOTT: Thank you, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
Kyle Gassiott