Storm targets park

Published 3:37 pm Wednesday, March 14, 2001

Advance Managing Editor
Most times, a day in the park would be a nice excursion, but Monday was not one of those days at Claude D. Kelley State Park as an alleged tornado, possibly two tornadoes, snapped trees in half, tore down power lines and left one park ranger with broken ribs.
Shortly after noon, the Escambia County Sheriffs Office was notified that several trees had fallen across Highway 21, one having landed on a tractor trailer, and was blocking traffic both ways. Lt. Tommy America and Deputy Larry Smith were the first to arrive on the scene according to Sheriff Tim Hawsey.
Hawsey said they also found the truck of a park ranger which had been buried under some trees. Kent Willis, a park ranger stationed near Claude Kelley, had been driving the truck when it was stopped by falling trees. He sustained several broken ribs.
The majority of damage done by the tornado was just over the Escambia County line in Monroe County. But, many agencies from Escambia County, as well as Alabama Power and state employees, helped with efforts to clean up the road.
Escambia County's Emergency Manageme nt Agent Bill Smith said he felt the evidence at the scene indicates that two tornadoes, traveling parallel to each other, caused most of the damage at the entry way to Claude Kelley State Park.
One piece of evidence that Smith is basing his assessment on was that the trees had shown signs of being "twisted" apart – not just broken.
Despite the damage that the park's nearby wooded areas sustained, Smith said these were not powerful twisters.
Smith reported the damage to the National Weather Service so they could have it in their records as a way to warn people as the front moved into other areas. He said the alleged tornadoes never appeared on radar systems.
The storm front that caused the damage later made its way to Evergreen. Although it is still unknown whether they experienced a tornado or very strong winds is unknown at this time.
Smith said that tornadoes sometime jump up and down, landing at various spots, and that is what may have happened Monday.
The destruction of property will not be enough for Smith to ask for disaster funds from the state or federal governments.
Sheriff Hawsey said Escambia County may have dodged a big bullet Monday.
Advance Publisher
Stan K. Willis is the park ranger at Claude D. Kelley State Park. Monday afternoon while working in the park his job became hazardous.
Willis said a hook echo is a clear indication that tornadic conditions exist.
By the time Willis made it to the end of the lane leading to his home, weather conditions had become very serious.
Willis said he has experienced tornadoes before and he knew the situation was serious.
That's when things went from bad to worse.
With trees falling around them, a tree crashed into the truck Willis was in.
Willis was able to free himself from his vehicle and go check on his wife. Fortunately the car she was in was hit by falling debris but no major damage was done to the vehicle.
Willis on the other hand suffered eight broken ribs, a bruised spleen and a collapsed left lung.
After the storm passed through, Willis and his wife made it to their home. Amazingly they had telephone service and were able to call 911 for help.
Willis is in Atmore Community Hospital in intensive care and is expected to make a full recovery.
He said he has been with the park service for 17 years and plans to return once he is released from the hospital.

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