Flooding forces Ala. Legislature out of Statehouse

Published 11:01 pm Thursday, May 7, 2009

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — Heavy rains flooded the basement of the Alabama Statehouse on Thursday, collapsing a wall and sending lawmakers across the street into the historic Capitol, which is more a museum and tourist draw than a site for hectic and high-tech legislative work.

The power was shut off at the Statehouse as a precaution, and legislators were unable to use their computers and other luxuries at the old building that sits on a hill across the street. It was the first time in more than 20 years that the Legislature convened for regular legislative business in the old Capitol — a National Historic Landmark where Jefferson Davis took the oath as presidency of the Confederacy.

House Majority Leader Ken Guin, D-Carbon Hill, said he saw a wall collapse near his office in the basement, which was flooded with some four feet of water. The Democratic caucus also has offices in the basement and had to move computers and other items out.

Without lights or working elevators, House and Senate officials decided to recess and move to the Capitol, which sits on a hill across the street and wasn’t affected. About 700 legislators, employees, lobbyists, reporters and tour groups evacuated the Statehouse and headed for the Capitol.

For legislators, it was the first time they had used the Civil War-era chambers for anything other than ceremonial functions since September 1985, when the Legislature moved into the Statehouse.

Democratic Sen. Bobby Denton of Muscle Shoals, who has served since 1978, said he enjoyed going back to the historic Senate chamber where he started, despite the lack of air conditioning.

“It’s nostalgic. I love this old Capitol,” he said of the building, constructed in 1851 in the Greek Revival style.

Lt. Gov. Jim Folsom Jr., the Senate’s presiding officer, said, “The last time I was on the Senate floor when it was active was in 1958, when I was a page.” At the time, his father, James E. “Big Jim” Folsom, was governor.

After Thursday, there are only two working days left in the 2009 regular session. If the House and Senate had to cancel Thursday’s session, it would have killed bills that needed action to pass before the final day of May 15.

Work was disrupted Thursday morning when floodwaters turned the streets and parking lot at the Statehouse into a lake, submerging more than 30 cars.

“It is unusual to see cars floating in the parking lot. But it’s just a car. Thankfully no one was hurt,” said state Sen. Harri Anne Smith, R-Slocomb, whose new Hyundai Genesis was flooded.

Derek Hamilton, chief sergeant of arms at the Statehouse, said four feet of water was standing in the building’s basement.

“This is the worst I’ve seen in my 16 years,” Hamilton said.

Folsom said it was uncertain if the Legislature will be able to return to the Statehouse for its final two meeting days next week.

Bills are pending in the Legislature that would allow the Legislature to replace the Statehouse, which has leaked and had mold problems for years. But Folsom said he doubted the problems Thursday would lead to any immediate construction.

“Myself and the entire Legislature are reluctant to address that until the economy comes back,” he said.

Elsewhere, torrential rains and violent winds hit central Alabama on Thursday. No injuries were reported as possible tornadoes threatened several communities.

In Macon County, Tuskegee police said a family had to be rescued after a tree fell into their mobile home about 7 a.m. CDT. There were no other reports of storm-related damage in the county.

The National Weather Service said hazardous weather could threaten central and southern counties through the day.

Weather officials also confirmed that a tornado caused damage across two counties in north Alabama on Wednesday.

Michael Coyne of the weather service office in Huntsville said Thursday that a tornado began in eastern Limestone County and moved across the city of Madison. The twister snapped off trees and damaged roofs, but no one was hurt.

Coyne said the tornado left a path of destruction nearly 11 miles long that was up to 75 yards wide in places.

The weather service was sending a team to west Alabama to determine whether twisters were responsible for damage there.

In north Alabama, Lauderdale County emergency management director George Grabryan said the Tennessee River was expected to rise to 22 feet Thursday, with flood stage at 18 feet. He said about eight roads were closed in the county but were expected to reopen later Thursday.

“The bulk of the rain has passed through, but we’re expected to get some off-and-on the next several days,” he said.