Stormy Saturday

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, May 4, 2005

Butler County received another lashing from Mother Nature early Saturday morning as a line of strong thunderstorms blew through the county downing trees and knocking out power to thousands of residents.

Terry Wilhite with Pioneer Electric Cooperative said during the peak of the storm there were 3,000 members without power system-wide, with 1,000 of those in Butler and Lowndes counties. He said this event ranked near the top of his worst storm list.

"By "dark thirty" on Saturday we had most of our members back on and in some isolated instances we still had about 50 people without power Sunday morning," he said. "In the 18 years that I've been here this is the worst storm we've had other than a hurricane."

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Jan Ellis with Alabama Power said Georgiana in south Butler County was hit the hardest with 12 broken power poles and 100 spans of wire on the ground.

"By Saturday night we still had about 1,100 people out but by 4:30 p.m. Sunday we were able to get the last person power restored," she said.

Due to the widespread nature of the outages, both Alabama Power and Pioneer received help from other crews to get power restored.

The Chapman area was the hardest hit as what was thought to be a tornado skirted the small community in south Butler County causing widespread damage and snapping off thousands of pine trees in a one mile stretch near the International Paper Mill plant on Highway 31. The National Weather Service has not yet made a determination on whether a tornado or straight-line winds caused the damage, but residents are still picking up the pieces.

"The lights started flashing and I looked out and the lightening was coming from the west," said Chapman resident Susan Parkerson, who was in her house with her children when the storm hit. "I told my daughter to get out of the bed and I looked out and it was a white out and I saw trees starting to fall."

Parkerson said her daughter, who is handicapped, got out of her bedroom just before a large pine tree fell through the roof, but luckily the family escaped the storm without injury.

Butler County Sheriff Diane Harris, who lives in south Butler County, said she was awakened by the storm and looked out her window to see a funnel cloud passing over her house.

"The bottom of it that I saw looked like a funnel and it looked like it had debris up in it," she said. "It went right straight up and over. About that time my deputy called me and said 'we got a tornado on the ground.'"

Harris said it was amazing that nobody was injured.

"It was the most damage I have seen in all my life for nobody to be injured," she said. "We had a bad time during Hurricane Ivan, but this was just devastating."

In Greenville, one family escaped serious injury when a large oak tree narrowly missed their Pine Street house. Dorothy Coleman and her family were home during the storm, taking shelter in their small wood framed house on N. Pine when the storm hit about 6:30 a.m.

"We heard a big noise and the tree had fell," said Joel Herbert standing on the front porch of the home, the large limbs of the oak tree just a few feet away. "We got scared because we heard it fall but didn't know how big it was until we looked out the window."

Road crews were busy after the storm clearing limbs and debris from the roadways.

"We about got everything cleaned up now," said Greenville Director of Public Works Milton Luckie, who said the damage in Greenville was scattered. "It wasn't one place that got hit. We were lucky, very lucky."

Butler County Emergency Management Director Bob Luman said the International Paper Plant in Chapman sustained severe damage and, as of Tuesday, was still closed due to damage to the building and electrical disruptions from the storm.

Kristy Brown, Director of Human Resources at International Paper said the plant should be back to business by Thursday or Friday. Several buildings at the mill sustained roof damage and several windows were broken out from the forceful winds. She also said about 30 vehicles sustained some type of damage.

"We sustained some damage but the most important thing is nobody was injured," she said. "We lost some of the sections of the roofs on some of the buildings, primarily on the drying shed and sustained some damage to the roof on the plywood plant but nothing that can't be repaired."

Brown said employees who are out of work due to the storm will be able to file for unemployment benefits for their missed time with the state determining what the employee's eligibility will be.