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Claudette regaining strength after 13 killed in Alabama

ATLANTA (AP) — Claudette was regaining strength early Monday and expected to return to tropical storm status as it neared the coast of the Carolinas just days after 13 people died — including eight children in a multi-vehicle crash — due to the effects of the storm in Alabama.

The children who died Saturday were in a van for a youth home for abused or neglected children. The vehicle erupted in flames in the wreck along a wet Interstate 65 about 35 miles south of Montgomery. Butler County Coroner Wayne Garlock said vehicles likely hydroplaned.

The crash also claimed the lives of two other people who were in a separate vehicle. Garlock identified them as 29-year-old Cody Fox and his 9-month-old daughter, Ariana; both of Marion County, Tennessee.

Multiple people were also injured.

Additionally, a 24-year-old man and a 3-year-old boy were also killed Saturday when a tree fell on their house just outside the Tuscaloosa city limits, said Capt. Jack Kennedy of the Tuscaloosa Violent Crimes Unit. Makayla Ross, a 23-year-old Fort Payne woman, died Saturday after her car ran off the road into a swollen creek, DeKalb County Deputy Coroner Chris Thacker told WHNT-TV.

A search was also underway for one man believed to have fallen into the water during flash flooding in Birmingham, WBRC-TV reported. Crews were using boats to search Pebble Creek.

Early Monday, Claudette had maximum sustained winds of 35 mph (55 kph), the National Hurricane Center said in an advisory. The depression was located 55 miles (90 kilometers) south-southwest of Raleigh, North Carolina, and moving east-northeast at 20 mph (31 kph), forecasters said.

The depression was forecast to become a tropical storm sometime Monday morning over eastern North Carolina. Claudette is then on track to move into the Atlantic Ocean, then travel near or south of Nova Scotia on Tuesday.

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Rainfall totals around 1 to 3 inches (3 to 8 centimeters) are forecast for parts of Georgia and the Carolinas. Tornadoes were also possible Monday morning across the coastal Carolinas.

A tropical storm warning was in effect in North Carolina from the Little River Inlet to the town of Duck on the Outer Banks. A tropical storm watch was issued from South Santee River, South Carolina, to the Little River Inlet.

The van in Saturday’s crash was carrying children ages 4 to 17 who belonged to the Tallapoosa County Girls Ranch, a youth home operated by the Alabama Sheriffs Association.

Michael Smith, the youth ranch’s CEO, said the van was heading back to the ranch near Camp Hill, northeast of Montgomery, after a week at the beach in Gulf Shores. Candice Gulley, the ranch director, was the van’s only survivor — pulled from the flames by a bystander.

“Words cannot explain what I saw,” Smith said of the accident site, which he visited Saturday. He had returned from Gulf Shores in a separate van and did not see the crash when it happened.

Gulley remained hospitalized Sunday in Montgomery in serious but stable condition. Two of the dead in the van were Gulley’s children, ages 4 and 16. Four others were ranch residents and two were guests, Smith said.

Garlock said the location of the wreck is “notorious” for hydroplaning, as the northbound highway curves down a hill to a small creek. Traffic on that stretch of I-65 is usually filled with vacationers driving to and from Gulf of Mexico beaches on summer weekends.

The National Transportation Safety Board tweeted that it was sending 10 investigators to the area Sunday to investigate the crash.

Meanwhile, it seemed to be business as usual along North Carolina’s Outer Banks on Sunday ahead of Claudette’s arrival.

At Stack ’em High in Kill Devil Hills, a restaurant that specializes in pancakes, co-owner Dawn Kiousis said Sunday morning restaurant service was busy.

“You keep your eye on the weather and you prepare as much stuff in advance as you can,” she said. “Just know she’s gonna win. Mother Nature is going to do what she’s going to do, so you just prepare.”

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