— TUSCALOOSA, Ala. (AP) — When the skies turned dark and ominous last week, Risha Prewitt, her four children and her husband were the first people to show up at community safe room built after the tornado disaster on April 27, 2011.
The structures, dozens of which were built across Alabama over the last three years, passed their biggest test yet during storms that resulted in more than a dozen twisters in Alabama.
Prewitt survived the 2011 twister outbreak in Tuscaloosa, where her neighborhood was devastated but her home spared, and she wasn't going to take any chances during the scariest tornado outbreak since.
"We went through the tornado on the 27th and we did not want to relive that," Prewitt said. "Actually, we wanted to take precautions and get in a safe place."
The shelter got stuffy after hours of waiting out waves of watches and tornado warnings Monday and Tuesday, but everyone was safe. The same was true 75 miles north in Haleyville, where hundreds of people hunkered down in the town's five shelters.
Haleyville Mayor Ken Sunseri said four of the town's shelters were constructed with grant money from the Federal Emergency Management Agency after the 2011 weather disaster, which killed more than 250 people statewide. The fifth shelter — approved for construction just a month before the disaster — has since been completed.
Last week, people began showing up in cars and trucks shortly after forecasters issued the first tornado watch, said Sunseri. By the time conditions got rough, with heavy rains and howling winds, about 400 people filled the largest shelter, which is made of reinforced concrete and seats 300, he said.
"It was standing room only," said Sunseri.
FEMA set aside more than $65 million for construction of large community safe rooms in Alabama after 2011, but the Alabama Emergency Management Agency said it doesn't know exactly how many have been built because they are being constructed in large numbers. Another $17 million was allotted to build safe rooms in residences.
Gov. Robert Bentley said people sought refuge in 65 community shelters statewide, but state officials said they don't yet know how many people were housed. The director the state emergency agency, Art Faulkner, said the structures made a difference, however.
"There are areas that had zero capacity before April 27 that will now have the ability to shelter hundreds of their citizens," said Faulkner.
The latest storms were blamed for three deaths, and at least 30 were hurt. Two people died in a mobile home in Limestone County, and a University of Alabama swimmer was killed when the basement wall in a house collapsed while he was seeking shelter during a tornado warning.
In Tuscaloosa, during the storms both Monday and Tuesday, hundreds of people filled a reinforced event hall located inside a public school. A trickle of people became a flood once rain began falling and the winds picked up, workers said.
On the other side of town, Prewitt and her relatives were among dozens of people who rode out the storms in a concrete building constructed outside another school. Volunteer workers shut the thick steel door after the National Weather Service issued a tornado warning, and they didn't open it again until given an all-clear sign.
"The wind was blowing and lightning. It was scary," said Prewitt.
Sunseri said the shelters in Haleyville provided cover on Monday for around 630 people, or roughly 15 percent of the town's population of 4,122. The post-2011 building boom allowed the city to protect far more of its residents than previously.
"Before we could only shelter about 70 people in the basement of the public library," said Sunseri.
Bell Gandy of Tuscaloosa said the community shelters have provided not just physical safety by peace of mind. "We were mostly calm because we felt secure," said Gandy.