The title of this article would make for a good TV movie, but this is real life in a small Alabama town. I’ve been somewhat trapped here for going on five days now. Founded by John G. Cullman in 1873, an EF4 tornado slammed the area April 27th. Two souls were lost.
As of this morning, 655 homes and 87 businesses are completely destroyed. According to the May 5th edition of The Cullman Times, 30 additional buildings have been red tagged to be razed. Work crews have removed more than 1,272 loads of foliage and debris form the city due to this early summer storm.
I’m accustomed to making up my own dialogue—occasionally “stealing” an overheard line from time to time, but the words that have been uttered to me in my short time here is not conjured from my imagination. Words such as:
Amusing: “The cable is out! No TV ’till don’t know when.”
Overheard sadness at Cracker Barrel: “It got our house,” an older man said, wounds dotting his entire face, eyeglasses askew on his nose. The cashier asked if he and his wife were okay. The man replied, “She’s out now.” (of the hospital I can only assume.) When the woman told him to take care, he said, “You should have seen me yesterday.” He gave her a little smile, took up his to-go order bag and limped away.
Heartbreaking: “My house is gone. Everything. Gone.”
A little scary: “I’m sorry, y’all but we’re closed, ’cause of the curfew and all.” I thought, Curfew! Huh? Is this a war zone? Nearly. As we made a slow crawl into downtown two Chinook helicopters flew overhead. Platoons of National Guard were stationed at every intersection in town, Humvies blocking the edge of ground zero where the tornado hit the Historical District featuring buildings over 100 years old.
Above and below is what’s left of the Little Bit of Everything building, 100 years old this year, initially the Fuller Brothers Ford Motor dealership. You can see the original wood where the brick façade literally dropped from the outside walls, steel I-beams bent from the force of destruction.
Here’s a link to more photographs of the tornado’s destruction.
I don’t believe there’s ever been a tornado where I live in the Phoenix, Arizonaarea and I didn’t know what to expect. When we arrived in Cullman we were fortunate to find a hotel room, but could only book lodging on a night by night basis as they needed to free up space for workers making the town safe and getting services back up and running.
Personnel have temporarily relocated in order to get the town up and running again. I spoke with a Verizon worker in town from Atlanta, Georgia, and an AT&T electrician from Miami who said his company sent workers from all over Florida to raise new poles and string fresh power lines.
Two ladies showed me last Sunday’s paper which featured aerial, wide angle photographs. “See that big old pile of bricks. That’s our church.” Then she pointed a shaking finger at another picture, nothing discernable but the street and sidewalks lining an intersection—nothing but bricks, wood and twisted metal, as if the business had imploded where they once stood. “And that picture there . . . right there on the corner is where I had lunch not more than fifteen minutes before the tornado came through.”
Although worries now include looting and price gouging, the residents and business owners of Cullman are focusing on lending neighbors a hand. They will rebuild their homes, cafés and places of worship, fill their shops with new goods to trade.
I won’t forget the devastation witnessed first hand; the unidentifiable smells hanging in the downtown air; the stunned people walking aimlessly, heads shaking to and fro, pointing at what was once there.
Residents of Cullman won’t soon forget the April 2011 tornado, the unfortunate reason that brought folks from all over southeastern states to lend a hand.
As with every small southern town I’ve ever had the privilege to visit, these strong willed people are filled with kindness, merely grateful to have survived—all ready to move forward, their relationships and faith stronger, resilience intact.
Deborah J Ledford’s latest novel SNARE, The Hillerman Sky Award Finalist, is book two of her Deputy Hawk/Inola Walela thriller series. STACCATO, book one of the serial, is also available. Both novels are published by Second Wind Publishing.