The Alabama Gulf Coast Zoo is expected to stay closed for at least a week after storms tore through the state Monday, but it wasn’t the first time the small facility suffered a blow from Mother Nature.
In 2004, Hurricane Ivan blistered the Gulf Coast, spawning tornadoes, downing trees, sending down torrential rain and smashing the zoo in vulnerable Gulf Shores.
Ivan, a Category 3 cyclone that made landfall Sept. 16, 2004, freed some of the zoo’s fauna, and zoo employees with tranquilizer guns spent the day following the storm stalking an Asian Fallow deer and a handful of does in waist-high floodwater.
They had corralled eight rabbits, four chickens and three roosters by the time then Palm Beach Post Photographer Gary Coronado and I arrived mid-afternoon the next day.
Cyndi Johnson, then the head zookeeper, said more animals probably were loose.
“I can’t tell you how many I got in the park because the park’s underwater,” she said in 2004.
The situation didn’t sound quite as bad Tuesday.
According to AL.com, damage includes trees down, birdcages damaged and fences down.
Of more concern with Monday’s storms were four deaths that occurred after a tree fell on a mobile home in Rehobeth, Ala., near the Florida border.
Rehobeth is in the so-called Dixie Alley, an area vulnerable to tornadoes, but less known than the tornado alley of the Great Plains.
Dixie Alley, which loosely includes Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee and sometimes the western stretch of Florida, is taking the research spotlight in an ambitious project that launched last year.
Dubbed Vortex Southeast, the $5 million plan includes multiple studies from the mechanics of Southeastern tornadoes to understanding the way Southerners react to tornado warnings and whether they are equipped to handle an approaching cyclone. The Southeast is heavy with ultra-vulnerable mobile homes where owners may be far from shelter.
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“There’s no place safe for them to go in their home,” said climatologist and research participant Kelsey Ellis, a Florida State University graduate and assistant professor of geography at the University of Tennessee.
Southeastern tornadoes are also more likely to come at night and stay on the ground longer, Ellis said.
“The Southeast has the greatest density of tornadoes and it has the greatest number of fatalities,” Ellis said. “People are asking why so many are dying and looking at the atmosphere in the Southeast for some answers.”
Alabama tops the nation for the highest number of average annual tornado deaths at 27, according to Storm Prediction Center data from 2005 to 2014. Missouri is second with 21, followed by Tennessee’s 11 and seven in Mississippi. In the same period, Florida averaged two deaths per year.