5 months ago

State park rangers on duty in times of calm and peril

Thankfully, with a few exceptions, Alabama State Parks remain open during the COVID-19 restrictions.

And as diligent as always, our park rangers are on duty to deal with any situation that might arise with everything from a welcoming wave and helpful hand to rescuing park visitors in peril.

That peril was particularly apparent last December when a line of storms started moving through north Alabama.

Joe Wheeler State Park Ranger Ryan Robertson was on patrol on December 16, 2019, while Ranger David Barr had the day off, or so he thought.

“That afternoon, we had some pretty volatile weather,” Barr said. “Ryan was running duty, and I stopped him at the boat ramp and told him I would be home if it got bad.”

It got bad at the 2,550-acre park on the Tennessee River near Rogersville. When a tornado warning was issued a little after 5:00 p.m., Barr donned his uniform and headed into the park to help Robertson warn the patrons and park volunteers of the impending storm.

Fortunately, with the Christmas season in full swing, the park was not full of campers or visitors.

“Ryan already had people evacuated from the campground,” Barr said. “We only had seven campers and four of those were volunteers. If we have a lot of people, we put some in the bathhouses and some at the campground store. Ryan took some of them to the lodge. He stayed with them. I was at the campground store with two ladies and two kids and a Pyrenees dog. I usually get out and ramble during something like this, but something told me not to do that. I stayed at the store. My son was with me, and he was watching the storm on the weather radar.”

Barr’s son told him the storm was about to hit, and Barr sent the visitors into one bathroom while he and his son got in the other.

The power went out, and a few minutes later it became apparent that they were in the tornado’s path.

“The store has metal doors on each side,” Barr said. “Those doors started flapping. I didn’t stick my head out to see, but it sounded like those doors were opening all the way and closing. The wind was howling and whistling. That lasted for three or four minutes and then it was quiet.”

While all campers, volunteers and park personnel escaped injury during the storm, the campground did not fare as well.

“When I was sure it had blown over, I thought we had escaped the worst of it until I went outside and got in my truck,” Barr said. When the lights came on, I could see big pine trees down. I tried to go up the hill to my house, but the road was blocked by trees.”

Barr walked the rest of the way to his house, which was unscathed, although numerous trees were down in the yard. Back in the campground, Barr discovered that the A section did not have much damage.

“But the B section was total destruction,” he said. “The bathhouse was destroyed. The meeting pavilion was caved in by trees falling on it.”

By that time, Barr was joined by Robertson and Park District Supervisor Chad Davis as well as part-time employee Morris Barnes, who has since become a full-time ranger at Monte Sano State Park.

Barnes hopped onto a backhoe and all hands started clearing downed trees out of the roadways until they realized live power lines were down in the park and decided to wait until daylight to resume their work.

The next morning, Barr discovered he had a view of the Tennessee River that he never expected or wanted.

“I’ve been a ranger and campground supervisor here for over 30 years,” he said. “This is my home. To see my life’s work blown away was devastating. We got strike teams in from other parks, cut our way through the different sections to assess the damage. I can’t really describe it. A section survived. Three-quarters of B section was gone. C section was completely wiped out.”

Barr, who was recently promoted to assistant superintendent at Wheeler, said out of 116 camping sites only 60 remained usable. Two bathhouses were destroyed. One large pavilion and two smaller pavilions were destroyed. Beautiful, tall pine trees were strewn throughout the campground.

“From my house, you can see forever,” he said. “You can see the river from my backyard, which you used to could never see. I can see all the way across the river. I miss the trees.”

Barr is just thankful that the pre-Christmas period is a slow time at Wheeler.

“I know of one camper who left early because of the weather,” he said. “I’m glad he did because that site he was staying at was completely leveled. If there had been many people in the campground, there would have been multiple fatalities.”

Barnes, who lives only 2½ miles from Wheeler, not only had heavy equipment experience, he also served with the Rogersville Police Department at that time.

Barnes ended up in an even more harrowing situation a few days after helping with the aftermath of the tornado.

Heavy downpours had caused creeks in north Alabama to swell rapidly. Barnes, who is trained in swift-water and high-angle rescue, had finished his shift with the Rogersville PD at 5:00 p.m. when a call came in about a car swept into a creek. That incident resulted in a fatality.

Then a second call came in about another car in the same creek not far away from the first incident.

“That girl’s mother went looking for her and drove off in the same creek, not knowing she was there,” Barnes said. “The first car was completely submerged. The second one, the front was stuck in the ground and the rear end was hung in a tree. The woman had managed to crawl out through the back glass.”

After being unable to rescue the woman, area enforcement officers called for the swift-water rescue team of which Barnes was a member.

Barnes got the Florence Fire Department to aid in the rescue with a rubber boat and a heavy fire truck that could be used as an anchor point in the swift water.

Barnes and another first responder got into the rubber boat and it was slowly released into the creek by rope.

“Once we got the boat over to the car, I knew her,” Barnes said of the trapped woman. “Everybody told me she was going to fight me, but when we made eye contact, I called her out by name. She called out my name, and then I told what I wanted her to do and not fight me. I got over close enough to put a life jacket on her and latched onto her. I didn’t try to drag her into the boat, but we dragged her to the opposite bank and released her to those personnel.”

Unfortunately, Barnes discovered the daughter’s car about 40 yards down the creek completely submerged with no hope of rescue.

After the incident, the Rogersville City Council and Mayor presented Barnes with a life-saving award that he was hesitant to accept.

“I’m not a hero,” Barnes said. “I had a job to do. To me, the hero was the woman. She hung in there for almost three hours until we could get to her.”

Barnes said it was a perfect example for the mantra of “Turn around, don’t drown.”

“It rained so hard and fast that the county didn’t have enough time to get up the barricades,” he said. “Lauderdale County is 71 miles wide. It just happened so fast.”

Sometimes, the problems park rangers encounter are not weather related.

For example, Lake Lurleen State Park Ranger Mark Caton, who has been a first responder in one capacity or another for more than 20 years, was checking people coming into the park when one vehicle left the road and went through the grass.

“We deal with all kinds of people,” Caton said. “It’s like having a concert in your jurisdiction every day.”

The driver of the errant vehicle exited and then jumped into the lake.

“Obviously, that’s not normal behavior,” Caton said. “He yelled, ‘Don’t try to get me out.’ But I grabbed my rescue boat and headed out. I didn’t get too close and tried to get him to talking. Usually, if you can get people talking, the less they think about what they want to do.”

Caton found out the swimmer had been in and out of psychiatric care and had been self-medicating instead of taking his prescription medicines. Caton also found out he and his girlfriend had had a fight and she kicked him out.

“He felt like he didn’t have anywhere else to go and was just going to swim until he got tired and drowned,” Caton said. “I tried to build a rapport with him and tell him that drowning was not the way to go. Finally, he was getting thirsty and tired. I tossed him a cushion float and he took it. That was the first step to get him back to the side of the lake. Then I told him we had some Gatorade on the other side of the lake. Believe it or not, the Gatorade worked. For somebody who wasn’t thinking clearly, he zoned in on Gatorade. He was close to drowning a couple of times. He swam back in and got his Gatorade, like we promised, and then we got him to a hospital.”

David Rainer is an award-winning writer who has covered Alabama’s great outdoors for 25 years. The former outdoors editor at the Mobile Press-Register, he writes for Outdoor Alabama, the website of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.

52 mins ago

Rep. Palmer: Why is it Joe Biden can send his wife out but he can’t go out?

Earlier this month, Jill Biden, wife of presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, began taking a more public role in her husband’s bid for the White House, participating in media interviews and campaign events.

However, Joe Biden has not been out and about as much as the former second lady, which has raised questions about the former vice president and his campaign.

During an interview with Mobile radio’s FM Talk 106.5’s “The Jeff Poor Show,” U.S. Rep. Gary Palmer (R-Hoover) asked that question and offered a theory as to why that is the case.

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“Here’s Jill Biden, living in the same house with Joe Biden, who is out doing interviews, who is out in meetings,” Palmer said. “She’s in her 60s. She’s not as old as Joe but I believe she is in her 60s, in that age group that is considered at risk. She is able to go out and meet with people. She is able to do interviews face to face but Joe can’t. So people ought to be asking themselves a question: Why is it he can send his wife out but he can’t go out?”

“There are a number of people who have a theory on that, not the least of which is he is a gaffe machine,” he added.

Palmer reminded listeners how Joe Biden’s struggles with gaffes go back decades.

“My first contact with Joe Biden was the very first work that I did in D.C. when I ran the think tank,” Palmer added. “That was Clarence Thomas’ confirmation hearing. And you may recall he had gone through controversy then … It is well known that he is surrounded in controversy and that he is a gaffe machine.”

@Jeff_Poor is a graduate of Auburn University and the University of South Alabama, the editor of Breitbart TV, a columnist for Mobile’s Lagniappe Weekly and host of Mobile’s “The Jeff Poor Show” from 9 a.m.-12 p.m. on FM Talk 106.5.

12 hours ago

Alabama political leaders react to Kamala Harris as Biden’s choice for VP

Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden on Tuesday selected U.S. Senator Kamala Harris (D-CA) to be his running mate. Political leaders from both sides of the aisle in Alabama reacted to the news.

Harris served two terms as the attorney general of California before being elected to the Senate in 2016.

U.S. Senator Doug Jones (D-AL), the Yellowhammer State’s most prominent Democrat and a longtime Biden ally, wrote “I know the power and energy of African-American women & the difference their hard work made in my race. Now we’ll make history by electing our first African-American woman VP & I’m so proud that person will be my friend and colleague ⁦Kamala Harris.”

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Jerry Carl, a Mobile County commissioner and the Republican nominee in Alabama’s First Congressional District, was the first major member of the Alabama GOP to react.

“Did Sleepy Joe forget that only months ago Kamala Harris attacked him for his racist policies? Now he is handing over the reins of the Presidency to her and the radical left,” Carl’s campaign account tweeted shortly after the news broke.

“I am ELATED that my friend, colleague, & Sorority Sister Kamala Harris was chosen as Joe Biden’s running mate! Joe Biden and Kamala Harris are ready to take on the big fights and she’s already shown the courage and success to win big fights,” U.S. Representative Terri Sewell (AL-07) posted to Twitter on Tuesday afternoon.

Former Auburn University head football coach Tommy Tuberville, the Republican nominee to take on Jones in November, commented on the news via Twitter.

“It’s no surprise that Joe Biden has selected a Socialist Democrat like Kamala Harris as his VP pick. Harris is as far left as it gets, and my opponent, Doug Jones, stands side-by-side with her on almost every critical issue,” Tuberville’s campaign posted. “They have voted time and again for late-term abortion, gun-grabbing laws, open borders legislation, and other far-left agenda items. We must not let Socialists like Doug Jones or Kamala Harris take over our country!”

Alabama Republican Party Chairman Terry Lathan released a statement, saying, “Joe Biden’s VP pick drags the Democrats’ ticket even further to the left.”

Lathan listed a number of liberal measures Harris has supported before adding, “We look forward to the clear contrast in policies in the Vice Presidential debate with Mike Pence and Senator Harris. It will be a true mirror of the obtuse plans the Democrats want for our nation.”

Montgomery Mayor Steven Reed, a Democrat, received Harris’ endorsement while he was campaigning for the office he now holds. He tweeted on Tuesday, “I like what I just heard” shortly after the news of Harris being chosen spread online.

“We are proud [Kamala Harris] has been selected to be Joe Biden’s VP. We look forward to helping her make history & make a difference over the next four years,” Reed added.

U.S. Representative Mike Rogers’ (AL-03) campaign account wrote, “Joe Biden’s radical lurch to the left just became even more extreme,” in response to the Harris news.

President Donald Trump was asked about Harris during a press conference at the White House on Tuesday afternoon.

“She’s a big tax raiser. She has a lot of things to explain,” he said in part.

Biden and Harris will take on President Trump and Vice President Mike Pence in the general election this November.

Pence and Harris will debate at 8:00 p.m. CT on October 7.

Henry Thornton is a staff writer for Yellowhammer News. You can contact him by email: henry@yellowhammernews.com or on Twitter @HenryThornton95

14 hours ago

Alabama Senate majority leader to SEC: Let them play

Alabama Senate Majority Leader Greg Reed (R-Jasper) sent a letter on Tuesday to Southeastern Conference Commissioner Greg Sankey, advocating for the SEC to allow its member institutions to proceed with the 2020 college football season this fall.

The letter came the day that the Big 10 and Pac-12 decided to cancel their fall seasons. Of the Power 5 conferences, the SEC, ACC and Big 12 have yet to announce if they will play football this year.

To try saving the season, a player-led #WeWantToPlay movement has popped up in the past few days, quickly gaining momentum nationally.

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University of Alabama head football coach Nick Saban and other prominent leaders in the world of college football have advised that most players want to play, and that players will very likely be safer following enhanced safety protocols developed by their teams rather than being back at home or left to their own devices on campuses all fall.

For example, University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) head coach Bill Clark on Monday tweeted that his team had tested all 176 people in the school’s football building for COVID-19, with all tests returning negative.

“In addition to the [SEC]’s Medical Advisory Group providing a medical clearance for gameplay this fall, I have faith in the various health and safety guidelines being adopted by the Conference’s member institutions, who have themselves relied on the vast expertise of the medical professionals on their campuses and within their respective university systems,” Reed wrote to Sankey.

He added that on top of “the heightened health and safety protocols in intercollegiate athletics, each member institution has created health and safety guidelines campus-wide.”

“I have a tremendous amount of trust in the decision making of institutions such as the University of Alabama and Auburn University and wholeheartedly believe that every decision made by their respective administrations will prioritize the health and welfare of their students, faculty, and staff over all other considerations,” Reed continued.

“Member institutions and student-athletes have worked tirelessly to get back on the field this fall,” the senator said. “Depriving opportunities for student-athletes to succeed on the field will long lasting and potentially devastating consequences for their futures, with many student-athletes aspiring to compete professionally.”

Reed concluded by asking the SEC to “hear the calling of their member institutions and student-athletes and commit to competition this fall.”

You can read the full letter here.

Shortly after Reed sent his letter, the SEC via Twitter released a statement from Sankey.

Sean Ross is the editor of Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @sean_yhn

15 hours ago

Lawsuit challenging statewide mask order dismissed by judge

A Montgomery County Circuit judge on Tuesday dismissed a lawsuit that sought to challenge the legality of Alabama’s statewide mask mandate.

The suit was brought by three Jackson County residents who thought the mask order, first ordered by Governor Kay Ivey in mid-July, was outside the bounds of what the government could put in place.

Seth Ashmore, the attorney handling the lawsuit, said on Tuesday his clients plan to appeal the ruling.

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Judge Greg Griffin handled the case at the circuit court level and made the decision to dismiss the suit shortly after a hearing conducted on Tuesday afternoon.

Both Ivey and State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris, in their official capacities, were named as defendants in the suit.

The persons suing Ivey and Harris argued the mask mandate was “illegally adopted” and a “deprivation of liberty.”

Lawyers from the Alabama Attorney General’s office argued in their motion to dismiss the suit that the Alabama Emergency Management Act of 1955 gave the Governor “ample authority” to require the wearing of masks by individuals when they are in public.

Both the lawsuit and motion to dismiss have been made available to the public by Mike Cason, a reporter for Alabama Media Group.

Henry Thornton is a staff writer for Yellowhammer News. You can contact him by email: henry@yellowhammernews.com or on Twitter @HenryThornton95

15 hours ago

Alabama HBCU students chosen for Coca-Cola Bottling Company UNITED internship program

Birmingham-based Coca-Cola Bottling Company UNITED has held the 2020 edition of its annual “Pay It Forward” program, which aims to provide black college students with opportunities to celebrate achievement and further their success.

Historically black colleges and universities (HBCU) students from 16 schools throughout Coca-Cola Bottling Company UNITED’s six-state footprint submitted applications earlier this year.

Now in its fifth year, the program was promoted actively across participating HBCU campuses. Coca-Cola reviewed the applications for the program, selecting 25 students total based on their impressive applications. This included seven students from Alabama HBCUs:

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Micah Hardge and Marion Brock IV, Alabama State University
Michael Howard, Miles College
Olivia Sarley, Stillman College
Jasimen Collins and Ayala Seaborn, Talladega College
Nia Reid, Tuskegee University

Normally, this program is a week-long, in-person experience; however, this year due to COVID 19, selected students participated virtually. These students engaged with Coca-Cola Company teams to learn more about the organization and how to conduct business most effectively during a two-day, informative development session held last week.

“Although we will not be able to meet these students in person this year, we are excited to get to know this remarkable group of ‘Pay It Forward’ interns,” stated John Sherman, president and CEO Coca-Cola Bottling Co. UNITED. “Our intent through the two-day program is to encourage these young adults and help enable them to further develop career goals as they plan for the next phase in life.”

During this internship, students reportedly gained experience in a wide range of roles at Coca-Cola, including sales, production, marketing, pricing, event planning, packaging, philanthropy and community relations. The program exposes participants to real-world work situations, including business practices and protocols, how to network and other important skills that will prepare them for the job market.

Over 100 students from Coca-Cola’s partner HBCUs have participated in the Pay it Forward internship to date.

Coca-Cola Bottling Company United, Inc., founded in 1902 and headquartered in the Magic City, is the second-largest privately held Coca-Cola bottler in North America and the third-largest bottler of Coca-Cola products in the United States. Now with its fifth generation of family working in the business, the Yellowhammer State company has approximately 10,000 associates located in more than 60 facilities across Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi and Tennessee.

Sean Ross is the editor of Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @sean_yhn