The National Weather Service is expected to be in Washington County on Friday to conduct a damage survey which will determine the strength of the tornado that passed through early Thursday morning, killing two local residents and injuring two others.
The tornado was one of about 30 reported as a result of the severe storms that affected about seven states in the southeast.
Officials with the Washington County Sheriff’s Office confirm the fatalities to be a married couple who resided on Gilbert’s Mill Road.
The tornado began to pass through the Alford and Cottondale communities near the Washington and Jackson County lines shortly before 4:30 Thursday morning.
“Me and my wife was sleeping, and it sounded like a freight train like everyone says it does,” said Gilbert’s Mill Road resident Charles Stevens. “She grabbed the dogs and ran to the bathroom, and before I could even get out of the bed and get my clothes on, it was done. But it was like things were falling out of the sky.”
Many homes, like the Stevens’, had only recently seen repairs completed following damage caused by Hurricane Michael.
“It was a brand need roof,” he said. “We just replaced it about three years ago after Michael.”
Stevens’ neighbors, Chris and Kim Gross, are also facing another round of post-Michael repairs; however, the couple got a helping hand from more than 40 friends and family members, who arrived at their home and began working just hours after the storm.
“Everybody I’ve known all my life just came together for me,” said Chris Gross.
The couple say they feel blessed to be alive, having left their home just minutes before the tornado hit.
“We left two minutes before it happened,” said Kim Gross.
“I knew it was bad before I got back to the house because when I got to the neighbors’, I saw my porch laying in their front yard,” added Chris Gross. “I knew then that it wasn’t going to be good.”
Several other homes and structures were destroyed in Washington County, with damage reported on Gilbert’s Mill Road, Kent Mill Pond Road, and in the area of Jewell Road and Archie Sapp Road.
Emergency Management Director Lynn Abel says the county is still working to assess the full extent of the damage.
“It was bad,” said Abel. “This one hit us hard.”
Abel went on to remind residents to be mindful of emergency responders working to restore safety and power in the area.
“Law enforcement, firefighters, EMS – They all see the scene before us, and it isn’t an easy job,” she said. “We are just so appreciative of what they do. We ask that residents be patient and try to avoid the areas where they are working. If you have to travel, please move aside to let them through, including the linemen who are working to restore power.”
West Florida Electric Cooperative reports that about 2,050 members in Calhoun, Jackson, and Washington counties were without power as a result of the storm.
A staging area has been set up by the Red Cross at the Orange Hill Community Center located at 1927 Orange Hill Road to assist those affected by the storm.