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Southern Heritage <br>News and Views: After the Storm

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

After the Storm

My Experience as a Tornado Relief Volunteer

by Pamela S. Warren

“We know that nothing can ever separate us from You, that in all conflicts we may be more than conquerors, that all dark and hostile things shall be transformed and work for good to those who know the secret of Your love.” Excerpt from Pastoral Prayer by David Schwingle, 12 June, 2011.

On April 27, 2011, at 3:05 pm, the small town of Hackleburg, Alabama, was struck by a rare EF5 tornado. Moments later, it was hit by a second EF5 tornado. Most of the state had been under a tornado watch that day. At 3:05 pm in Hackleburg, people were going about their day-to-day activities. School had let out early, due to the threat of severe weather. At 3:05 pm in Hackleburg, no weather radio sounded an alert, no tornado siren was heard. There just wasn’t time. The only warning came from a fireman in a neighboring town, who had seen the tornado heading toward Hackleburg. He telephoned the fire station to give them warning. A lone fireman manually turned on the warning siren, just seconds before the tornado reached the unsuspecting town. There wasn’t time to take cover. No time to protect yourself. Scarce little time to even pray.

Less than 24 hours after the devastating tornado struck Hackleburg, my husband Terry (known throughout this article as T), started making plans to go help with the clean up efforts. His father lived in Guin, Alabama, when the first recorded EF5 struck that town on April 3, 1974. T went to Guin the day after to check on his dad, as phone lines were down. He also went to help with the clean-up efforts there. He has told me several stories about living down there, and what it was all like after the tornado. His dad lost everything, several friends, and he nearly lost his life. T told me that he remembered several people coming from Hackleburg to help in Guin, and that he “just had to go back home and return the favor”.

The first thing we had to do was somehow make contact with Hackleburg. We were hearing and reading conflicting accounts whether volunteers were being used or not. It took several days before telephone service was even possible with a cell phone. Finally we called the number listed for the Hackleburg Chief of Police, though we feared it was still a long shot bet, at best, if we would reach anyone. It was great to hear a cheerful voice on the other end of the phone saying “Call Center”, in that distinctive “Bama” accent. I was given the phone number for Beth, the volunteer coordinator, who I called immediately. Again, that same accent, that same cheerful delivery. Beth confirmed that volunteers were indeed, needed and wanted, and for us to come on down, “but do be careful on your trip”, she said to me. Wow, in the face of so much destruction, loss and misery, that “stranger” was worried about us making the drive from Illinois to volunteer. This was not the last time I was awed by an Alabamian, nor the last time I spoke with Beth. In fact, I called her so often, checking this detail and that, asking what we needed to bring, etc., that she came to know me simply as “Pam in Illinois”.

May 22 is T’s birthday, but we were far from planning a birthday celebration. In the early morning hours of that day, we were loading supplies for donating to the clean-up efforts, a cooler of food and water, and basic camping gear, as our van was to be our home away from home while we were gone. Not knowing what type of work we would be assigned to do, we loaded a variety of what we thought we might need: hard hats and safety goggles (a “must” according to Beth), work gloves, long pants, tall boots to avoid snake bites, and more “seasonal” garments for evenings when we wouldn’t be working.

We left Bridgeport around 7:00 am, in a 14-year-old van with 225,000+ miles, not knowing if it would even get us to Alabama, let alone get us back home. It is difficult to describe how I was feeling when we hit the road. I was glad to be going, but I was also afraid how I would deal with seeing first-hand, the absolute and total destruction of a small town. A town not so unlike Bridgeport or Sumner. Since the storm we had been glued to YouTube videos of footage taken after the storm. We knew what we were going into: a war zone of indescribable magnitude; destroyed trees, unrecognizable buildings, devastated lives and death.

We were about an hour away from Hackleburg, and there beside the highway was a row of four or five houses, all totally destroyed by yet another one of Alabama’s tornadoes of April 27. The pit of my stomach started tightening up…this was only four or five houses, how was I going to react when I finally got to Hackleburg? It didn’t take long to find out, for within the hour I would know.

We drove down Alabama Route 17, and all was well. Trees flourished, birds flew through the sky and not a power line was down. But as we crossed Clifty Creek and headed back up the hill, we began to see bits and pieces of debris along the road and lying in fields. Trees were snapped and lay on the ground in a path three quarters of a mile wide and as far as the eye could see, much as those on Mount St. Helen’s. The experts call this phenomenon “convergent” patterns. I later learned that we had just traveled the same path as the tornado had after it destroyed Hackleburg. It then turned and followed along the creek on its way to Phil Campbell, Alabama, still as an EF5 tornado. One must remember this tornado was three quarters of a mile wide, with winds at times, nearing 300 miles per hour, and stayed on the ground 23 minutes, and covered 25.2 miles. It was part of a super cell storm which existed about seven hours 24 minutes and traveled 380 miles, producing 170 tornadoes, 55 in Alabama alone. Thank you to NOAA for this information.

We drove on through what I thought must have been the worst of it, but with each eighth mile of so, there was more and more debris and entire buildings which seemed to have imploded upon themselves. There on the right was the Wrangler blue jeans distribution center. Its roof torn off, its girders lying twisted in a heap and the building’s sides folded inward. Yes, it looked bad on YouTube, but this was real, this was right in front of my face, this was incomprehensible.

We started seeing “Volunteer Sign In” signs as we got farther into town. Work crews were everywhere. Heavy equipment was loading debris from huge, endless piles into the biggest dump trucks I’ve ever seen. Burn fields were smoldering all over the countryside, forever being rekindled with yet another truckload of broken wood. Aluminum, steel and other metals, glass and any recyclable materials were being sorted into yet more piles. As a side note, last Friday, June 10, the Army Corps of Engineers estimated that if all the non-burnable debris piles throughout Hackleburg were combined, the pile would be as large as a professional football field, and a mile high. According to Beth, my original contact person, as of that same Friday, only about half the clean up was done.

At the Volunteer Sign In Station, we filled out required paperwork, got our I.D. badges and were immediately assigned to the food tent. We laughed and asked if it would be all right for us to take a 20 minute break before we started, as we had just driven eight hours to get there. They asked if we wouldn’t rather just start in the morning, but we hadn’t gone to Alabama to sit back, we went there to work. After catching our breath and cooling off for just under 20 minutes (our van air conditioner doesn’t work), we entered the food tent for our assignments. I began serving food to volunteers who were returning from their long day’s work. These volunteers were soaked with sweat, dirty as can be, and very hungry. Clara, a resident volunteer, and I heaped food onto their plates and smiled to one another each time we were blessed with serving these good souls. My husband was assigned a hotter task than I, he was helping with the cooking of the food. A Methodist mission group from the Lexington, KY, area, consisting of a husband and wife, their 17 year old son, another young man, and Billy the helper. I will forever remember Billy’s favorite saying: “It will all work out”. I heard him use this saying more than a few times, and each time, things did work out.

The mission group had brought a large trailer carrying a gas grill, tables, a generator and literally tons of food in a semi-trailer. Two large smokers had been donated from someone in the area, and this group of five had been cooking three weeks straight, three meals a day, for upwards of 500 people per meal, and cleaning up after each meal, too. They were, needless to say, thankful for T’s appearance in their “kitchen”. In addition to the volunteer meals, “to go” containers were readied for the senior citizens of Hackleburg. That food tent was the only place in town to get a hot meal.

My workday ended after 9:30 pm, after all had been fed, and all had been cleaned up and readied for the next day. Before we left the tent, T was asked to work security on the grounds, and even though worn out from the drive and the duties assigned him upon arrival, he heartily consented. The grounds were basically comprised of semi-trailers, most with refrigerating capabilities, full of food and ice, others filled with donated supplies yet to be used, still others carried several huge generators, to power the cooling system for the dining tent. There was an AEMA (Alabama Emergency Management Agency) trailer, supply tent, cook tent, and several other facilities of unknown purpose. Police frequently patrolled the area, but they always feel better knowing there is a “man on the ground” at all times. T’s workday ended at 3:30 am.

The next morning we went to do the required daily sign-in, and found that no one was working the tent. Again I called Beth, and she asked if T and I would work at the tent, signing in volunteers, making sure paperwork was filled out, arm bands were labeled and worn, etc. Wherever we were needed, that’s where we wanted to be. Hour after hour we signed in volunteers, took work requests from residents, and matched up need to assistance. We even signed in three people from Lincoln, Illinois, who had come to help. They were immediately dispatched to get pet and livestock feed from a donor 20 miles up Highway 17, to care for those animals found after the storm, but not yet matched up with their owners.

At the sign in tent, we met a young local man named Jamie. He agreed to take me on a driving tour, so that I could videotape the tornado’s aftermath. I left T to handle the tent alone, and got into Jamie’s mini van. A huge, aluminum extension ladder was between the seats, and ran from front glass to rear. He had been out looking for a mobile home that needed a tarp put on its roof, but had been unable to find it. Keep in mind that the population in Hackleburg is very similar to Bridgeport or Sumner, however, the city limits is comprised of 15 square miles, in comparison to Bridgeport which has a 1.1 square mile area.

As Jamie and I left the volunteer station, I was under the impression that we were a fair distance from the destruction, as none could be seen from where we were staying. One turn and less than a quarter mile down the road, the destruction was playing out through the windshield, like it had played on the computer screen when I saw it on YouTube. On the left were the remains of the Church of God of Prophecy. It had been a new metal building, green roof, white sides, with vestibule in center and smaller sections on either side, and a huge fellowship hall toward the back. All that was left standing was the front sections, though damaged beyond being saved. The fellowship hall was completely destroyed to an indescribable scene of twisted girders and indistinguishable rubble.

We drove past the elementary and middle schools. Both were completely destroyed, as was the high school. Jamie pointed out what had been here and there, but it would take a local to be able to tell that anything had been there at all. Everything was being bulldozed to the side of the roads, so crews with heavy equipment could load it up and haul it off. Areas that looked like nothing but bare, or sparsely forested areas, were once groups of homes. Here and there you could see a house’s foundation, but more often, the house was lifted, foundation and all. As we drove past what had been his pastor’s house, he told me that the pastor had been out of town on April 27, and that the tornado took not only his entire house, but his storm shelter roof, as well, all 5000 pounds of it.

The tiny “downtown” area of Hackleburg had already been cleared of debris. The Piggly Wiggly grocery store, the Dollar General Store, the doctor’s office and pharmacy, were now just a deserted concrete slab. We had many residents tell us that the town looked 90% better than it did after the tornado. To me the clean up looked like several more months to completion, however the locals are pushing, and hoping, for the end of July.

It is difficult to fully describe what I saw on this 20 minute driving tour. Things I’ve never seen before, and hope to never see again. Heavy equipment, piles of debris, downed trees, and the same glazed look on the faces of both locals and volunteers. I was there, I saw it, but I still can’t fully comprehend just what I saw. I am not a writer. When I sat down to compose this piece, I had high hopes that I might be able to recount the sites, sounds and emotions that I experienced. I know in my heart I have fallen short in that endeavor, however, that is of little consequence, for all that I experienced in Hackleburg, Alabama, is embedded in my heart and mind, and shall remain there all the days of my life.

On a brighter note, while Jamie and I were out, we located the mobile home and got the tarp on the roof, so the family could move back into the damaged part of the trailer.

We got back to the volunteer station way later than both T and I expected. While I was gone, T had met with the representative from U.S. Steel, the project assignment director of the Christian Ministries Disaster Relief Association, had met a local lady, distraught over having to have her house pushed to the curb. This cannot be an easy thing to have to arrange. She had a four year old daughter, a two year old son, a baby on the way, and her husband was serving in Afghanistan. She had signed up on the second day that the crews were in her block, but her house was overlooked. This was the final day for her to have it removed pro bono. T arranged with Mike, from U.S. Steel, to have the house moved, despite the fact that the U.S. Steel crew was working on another location. As the lady was walking away with Mike, a battered pickup truck pulled into the parking lot. T said he couldn’t believe it was on the road. A young man and two small children walked up to the sign in table. He questioned T about when and how to sign up, and explained that he was a 100% disabled veteran, and that he couldn’t work that day because he had the children with him. T told me he had a probably three inch difference from hip to hip, and had such an unusual walk, that he was amazed he could walk at all. This young man, a local, detailed his experience on April 27: He and the children had been on Main Street when the EF 5 monster hit. He was pulling out of a side street, and checking for traffic. First he looked over his left shoulder and there was nothing there, then he looked to the right. He heard a sound, he didn’t know if it was a siren or the actual tornado itself, he just remembered hearing a sound. Then he saw the tornado. It hit the truck and rolled it down Main Street. He didn’t know the number of times the truck had been rolled over, but it ended up on its side. The driver’s side door would open and he lifted his children out. Thankfully, he said, he was wearing a seat belt and the children were in car seats. He broke down at this point in time, and started crying. He said, “I’ve lived here all my life. It’s been almost a month, and this is the first time I’ve come to volunteer.” He went on to say that he had wanted to volunteer countless times, but just couldn’t bring himself to do so. He accounted how, when the immediate shock wore off of what had just happened, the first thing that he, and his children alike, saw were mangled bodies, some completely naked, even pulled out of their shoes by the tornado. My husband suggested that he should wait perhaps a bit longer to volunteer. T assured him it had nothing to do with his disability, as there were a ton of jobs that he could do, in fact, there were people working in wheelchairs. It was just T’s opinion that he had been through enough, and was better off spending the time with his children.

It was while I was gone that word reached the volunteer station about the Joplin, Missouri, tornado. All people in the volunteer area started praying for the people in Joplin. Here are people who have lost everything, taking time to pray for others in the same situation they found themselves in less than a month earlier.

As the workday drew nearer to a close, we were informed that the volunteer effort was changing from individuals to organizations, whether they be private or governmental. The volunteer program we came to join was disbanding, for the most part. There was sadness in our hearts, and regrets that we came so late, as to miss out on the immediate needs of Hackleburg. We were faced with the difficult decision of whether to spend yet another night, or to leave out and drive home through the night. A phone call from our daughter told us of the terrible storm here at home that day, and our decision was made immediately. T went to pack the van, while I worked the sign in tent, and find our replacements. Billy was at the tent, in his American flag shorts, and said “It will all work out………I’ll work the tent for ya……… will all work out, go on home”. We said our good-bys. There were smiles, handshakes, hugs, and plenty of tears. I regret not getting to meet Beth, but she had been assigned to work the call station and wouldn’t be at our location until the next day. I had brought her a desk plaque with the inscription “Faith is daring the soul to believe beyond what the eye can see”. I put our names, the dates we were there, and Bridgeport, Illinois on the back. Luckily a nice lady volunteered to deliver it to Beth for me.

We left Hackleburg around 3:00 pm, and headed north, and home. The drive back was going very well, and T and I talked non-stop about our time in “Bama”. We reached Clarksville, Tennessee, and the sky was getting dark. Just then, the weather alarm went off on the van’s radio. It was a severe thunderstorm watch. The rain fell in buckets, to the point of barely being able to keep driving, and the wind was making it difficult to keep the van on the road. Less than 4 minutes after the thunderstorm watch was issued, another alarm sounded. This time it was a tornado warning. We pulled into a gas station, as we were nearly on empty from driving too fast for conditions just to try and outrun the tornado that was chasing us almost as fast as we were driving. When we were in the station, thinking maybe it was a good place to sit it out for a while, the attendants told us the tornado was still coming, and that we’d best get back in our van and head north. We took their advice. The tornado chased us to Hopkinsville, Kentucky. Lucky for us, not so lucky for others, the tornado changed direction, and headed toward southeast Indiana, where it later touched down.

We arrived home just after 11:00, glad to be home, and glad to see our daughter. The very next day, the day we were scheduled to come home, the NWS issued the fifth “severe risk day” warning of the year, which included Lawrence County. The prior four severe risk days had produced multiple violent, and huge, tornadoes. What this means is, had we stayed in Alabama and driven home on Wednesday, we would have passed through the severe risk area, and several tornadoes. It was a tense time here, that’s for sure, but despite a severe storm, no tornadoes caused severe damage in our immediate area.

I thank the Sumner Press for giving me the opportunity to share our story about Hackleburg, Alabama. Please remember that Hackleburg was only one town to be hit on April 27, 2011. I did not aim, nor intend, to single out Hackleburg as the only damaged place, or the only place where care and concern were needed. The outbreak of April 25-28, 2011, killed at least 344 people, according to Wikipedia, in 21 states, from Texas to New York, and there are still people missing. Alabama alone lost 238 people.

“In every person’s life there are dates, times and places that will always be remembered. For the most part, these remembrances are of the nature of weddings, births of children and grandchildren, and yes, the loss of a loved one. To me, personally, there are two dates and places that I shall never forget, those being Guin, Alabama, April 3, 1974, and Hackleburg, Alabama, April 27, 2011. Two tiny towns, 22 miles apart, surrounded by pine covered mountains, red dirt and rock; forever changed, yet filled with good people of faith, fortitude, and the will to rebuild and prosper. Like a Phoenix rising, let they be an example to us all.” T Warren

Hackleburg Tornado Damage


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