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Tornadoes of Alabama/TN Valley

May 04, 2011 - 14 comments
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I know my journal entries seem to go unnoticed much anymore--I suppose that comes with me not being as active on the site as I used to be--but I wanted to share my experiences from last week.
I live in Huntsville, Alabama. As any informed American would know, northern Alabama and the Tennessee Valley (north eastern Mississippi, northwest Georgia, the southwestern half of Tennessee and parts of Kentucky) were bombarded with multiple tornadoes on April 27th, some of the worst seen in about 40 years. Needless to say, last Wednesday, a week ago today that doesn't feel as if it's been that long, was a scary day.
Huntsville didn't really see much damage, thankfully. But just north of Huntsville, in East Limestone County, the strongest tornado of the day swept through. The EF-5 tornado (meaning winds were over 200 mph) has completely demolished parts of Athens, Alabama in East Limestone County. I should know first hand, unfortunately, as my family has been staying in that area for the last week because the entire city of Huntsville had its power blacked out. My in-laws live there, and oddly enough, they never lost power to their home although not even a mile away, there is heavy damage, and within two or so miles, complete devastation.
One of my co-workers lives in the area and had just gotten married a few months back and built a home with her husband in that area. They were fortunate to only have part of their roof blown off and all their windows shattered. Others in that same area don't even have a home anymore--even parts of home foundations are missing. There is rubble, debris, and fallen trees everywhere. Trees that are still standing are nothing more than mutilated skeletal sticks, and many of them have sheet metal embedded into their trunks and wrapped around whatever branches may be left.
My husband and I saw one tree as we drove by--I wish we'd had an opportunity to get a photo of it. Its trunk's diameter must have been maybe 2½ - 3 feet, and it was snapped in half like it was nothing more than a toothpick. Stuck to the trunk at the rawest, most damaged broken part of the trunk was a tattered, frayed, and muddied portion of an American flag, yet the red and white stripes were still vivid enough to catch one's eye.
The worst damage of all was in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, which is west of Birmingham. The entire city is in ruins; there is almost nothing left. At least 65 people lost their lives and over a thousand people have been left injured.
Some of the stories coming out of this tragic disaster are heartwrenching. People fought for their lives and some survived with major injuries, people sacrificed their lives for their loved ones as they attempted to use themselves as shields, babies were ripped from the arms of their families and killed, beloved pets were lost or killed, and many livestock and horses have been fatally injured.
I feel very blessed, and yet somewhat guilty, that my entire family is okay and suffered no loss of life or property. All my family has lost this last week is a couple hundred dollars of cold and frozen food since Huntsville lost power, and the inconvenience of being unable to live at home for a week. Today marks the seventh day my home still awaits electricity. It is REALLY rough living without electricity for so long. I'm glad we had a place to go with all the comforts and conveniences we take for granted without a second thought each day, even though living away from home has been an inconvenience all its own. Life just has not been easy this last week. It's been rather depressing and exhausting.
A week later today, at least 90% of power has been restored to Huntsville and it's my first day back to work again and my sons' first day back to school and daycare. I've been so exhausted and out of routine that I forgot to send Trevor to school with his bookbag. At least everyone around here understands the stress we're all facing right now and his missing bookbag won't be an issue today.
I don't know when my husband and my mom will return to work. Their occupations are in an area that is at the bottom of the priority list to receive power. They are being told it'll probably be Monday. It's getting to be nerve-wracking not having work and not having electricity. It messes with your anxiety levels more than you can imagine. Still, I feel blessed that our city isn't dealing with what others are going through.
I wish this had never happened. I have lived in Alabama for nearly eight years, and I've never really taken severe weather seriously. The most we usually get is heavy rain, loud thunderstorms, and a big load of inconvenience as schools decide to close down halfway into the day and call parents to pick their kids up in the midst of the worst weather. In the past, when I'd hear the weather sirens go off, I'd just roll my eyes and think, "Great. Here we go with all the needless panic and interrupted work days and TV shows as all the meteorologists come on to tell us what we already know--we're having a thunderstorm."
I will admit that last Wednesday morning, I was in the same mindset. I didn't really begin to feel scared until about 4:00 pm. I've never seen the skies get so dark and threatening. Ever. It was like the storms were taking place on the ground instead of in the skies. Athough Huntsville got no tornadoes, we got high winds and downed trees and power lines. My property backs up to city property, which has been neglected in upkeep. My back yard fence line has a thicket on the other side of it that is a hazard to mine and my neighbors' property, but although we've called and complained about it, the city has yet to do anything about it. I don't imagine they ever will. Anyway, there's a massive tree that is dying just beyond my back yard fence. It snapped in half and fell in the storm. By the grace of God, it fell the opposite direction of my home. If it had fallen 180° the other way, it would have gone right through the middle of my house--just where we all were huddled in the bathroom that night for cover.
A tree not even a block away was uprooted and fell on the power lines. Maybe that's why we have yet to get power, even though the tree has been cut down and the lines restored. The front yard of the home where that tree stood is also very fortunate that the tree did not fall in the opposite direction, and the home across the street from it is very fortunate that the power lines kept it from going through their home.
It's all just crazy. Sad. Devastating. Heartbreaking.
We have a lot of work cut out for us.

So please...to anyone who reads this, please consider making a donation to the American Red Cross at www. redcross. org (remove the spaces between the dots). Click the "donate now" button and select "American Red Cross Northern Alabama-Tennessee Valley Region.”
Our region is desperately in need of help and donations to get things restored again. I know a big need is baby items such as diapers, wipes, formula, and jars of baby food.
If you can't donate, please keep this region of the United States in your thoughts and prayers.

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by bbxx, May 04, 2011
We have been thinking of you all and praying for everyone there. Such a difficult time for so many. We will continue to pray. You all are not forgotten.

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by teko, May 04, 2011
I thank God you and yours are okay and did not suffer ill health from these storms. My sister lives in Ringold Ga, and my youngest da and her family lives in Tenn. While people were dying in Alabama I was on the phone with my da who was hold up in a storm cellar with her three children and her dog. Over 30 people lost their lives in the area where she lives as well. My oldest da  and 2 of my sons lives in Oh and were under a Tornado Watch that night as well and are now dealing with flooding and continued rain. I heard on the news this morning that one area in Tenn was totally overlooked by the media and those people are begging for help as well. They have not even been declared a disaster area yet.  I hope we can all give whatever we can to help all the devastated areas, because it could have just as easily been us. I pray things settle down for you and you can get back to some semblance of normal very soon. I am happy to say that none of my relatives were injured but it did scare the beejeebies out of us all. My prayers are with you....

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by bbxx, May 04, 2011
Goodness Teko---thats terrible! I am glad your family is ok!

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by AHP84, May 04, 2011
I wish we had a storm shelter. I just have a tiny little house on a slab foundation surrounded by four huge trees...about one step up in safety from a mobile home.
I was really scared that night. I am so glad nothing happened. I can't thank God enough.
I'm glad to hear your family made it through and all is well with them, teko. This has been quite an experience.

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by have 2 kids, May 04, 2011
I knew about the devastation that had occured in Alabama but hearing it from someone that was actually involved in it makes it even more chilling.   I am happy your family is safe and suffered only the loss of food.  

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by AHP84, May 04, 2011
I just got a call from my husband--we just got our power restored! I am SO incredibly happy right now! We can sleep in our own house and beds tonight!
I also just noticed a post on Facebook from one of our local news stations that Huntsville Utilities has now made 100% power restoration to the city. Maybe my mom and husband will be able to return to work tomorrow, or at least by Friday...I'm really hoping that's the case.

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by AHP84, May 05, 2011
Here is one of the most heartbreaking stories from an area that isn't far from me: Arab, Alabama (pronounced \ˈā-rab\). I have a few family members that live in Arab, and I almost bought a house there.

Marshall County Alabama
ARAB, Alabama -- Family members confirmed this morning that the five people kill...ed in the Ruth community northwest of Arab were all from the same family huddling in the same house on Frontier Road.

There were nine family members in the house and four survived, according to Sheila Hendrix, whose sister Ann Hallmark was among the fatalities.

Also killed were Ann's husband Phillip, their son Shane, Shane's wife Jennifer and 17-month-old Jayden Hallmark. Jayden's twin sister, Julie, is in intensive care at a Huntsville hospital.

Ricky Hallmark, Jayden and Julie's father, lost his parents, a brother and a son in the tornado.

Among the survivors was 6-year-old Arie Hallmark, the daughter of Shane and Jennifer Hallmark.

Hendrix said the family was huddled in a center bathroom in Phillip and Ann Phillips' house when the storm struck. Nothing remains on the foundation of the house and the bodies were carried at least 150 yards along the path of the tornado.

"They were good, good people," said Beth Casey, a neighbor of Ann and Phillip Hallmark. "They would help anybody that needed help."

Said Casey's daughter, Brandy, "They were the type that would come up and ask you if they could help you."

Ricky Phillips, EMA director in Arab, said 14 people were sent to hospitals in addition to the five casualties. There is no immediate timetable on when power will be restored in Arab.

You can see their pictures (among many other victims) on this Facebook page.
https://www. facebook. com/#!/pages/In-Memory-of-4272011-Tornado-Victims/105059329582526

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by Des_a_rae, May 05, 2011
Hi there!  I completely agree.  Our state has never seen a more heartbreaking site. I live in Etowah County and the one that came through here was an EF4. It was about 5 miles from my house and I to feel guilty that my and my whole family are okay.  We still have our house, we lost alot of trees and power for awhile but we survived.  We've been clearing tree and debris for the last 6 days and it looks like a long road is still ahead of us.  I've cleaned our closets top to bottom and have even went and bough supplies.  You look around and wished you could do so much more.  If I had more money I could buy more things that they need.  These people need EVERYTHING.  I was in the store looking around and thinking "what do they need most of" because as you look around..you could pick up anything and they would need it.  I'm so happy to hear you and your family are well.  It's soo devistating and heartbreaking.  

My parents were in Piedmont the night the tornado came through.  After it was over they were driving down a road up there where it was most hit and all they could hear were people screaming for help. My dad, mom, brother, his girlfriend and my little sister were pulling people out of their houses.  This one poor lady was trapped between a steal beam that had nails in it, up against her hip.  They managed to get her free. I guess you could say they were first on the scene.  They were running from house to house helping people out from under all the rubble.  My sister (sorry for the TMI) was running across what used to be a pasture and came across 2 dead horses.  One had been bleeding pretty bad and was dead, the other had wood shoved through it. I couldn't imagine walking up on something like this.  So terrifying and so sad.  You never truely realize how lucky and blessed you are until something like this happens and opens your eyes.  We've been serving food, helping with clean up and still think "what more can we do??".  I guess that's the "guilty feeling" of surviving and still having a home when so many have nothing.  Anyways, enough rambling.  Thank you for posting this!!  

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by AHP84, May 05, 2011
Hi! Wow, so nice to meet a fellow Alabamian--and what a small world! I used to live in Calhoun County (just off of Hwy 431) before moving to Huntsville in 2007. I am very familiar with the Anniston/Gadsden/Jacksonville/Piedmont areas. In fact, I used to work part time in Piedmont at Berry Animal Clinic my last year at JSU. Would you happen to know if Dr. Berry's clinic survived the storm? I'm betting he's been pretty busy this last week attending to injured livestock. :-(

It's so horrible what people have been through--words can't even describe it. When you're here to see the aftermath firsthand, you want to share your experiences verbally, with pictures, video clips...whatever...but it still is NOTHING compared to being in the middle of it physically. Smelling the rotting garbage and who knows what else, hearing the cries, finding things that you know belonged to someone but having no idea if they even survived, living without power--not just an inconvenience of everyday living, but harmful to rescue efforts in some cases. I feel like this part of our nation is trying to recover from something equal to a bombing.

My church is collecting donations of goods and products this Sunday. I plan on supplying a few things, but I wish I could buy a whole Sam's Club warehouse and help distribute stuff. However, our personal finances have been hit hard in this as well, so we can't afford too much. I wish it wasn't so hard. I wish we could do more.

Thank you for sharing your story!

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by AHP84, May 05, 2011
Here's another story a a co-worker forwarded me from her friend. It's a bit long, but a great account.
I would like to try to share as much as I can as far as peoples' stories and information about what has been lost, because I'm hoping to give these storms more of a human face rather than what people might see on edited news clips.

Tornado - April 27, 2011: Our Story
I just want to express how much it means to me to have turned on my cell phone on Thursday morning, and upon finding a tiny pocket of service, to hear "beep-beep-beep" and a flood of text messages from people checking in on us. I’m so glad to hear that family and friends so far are doing ok, although perhaps have undergone minor home damage, and shaken up a bit. Our neighborhood was devastated, and although there is much to sorrow over, there is much to rejoice over. God is here, and we are more than okay. Since everyone has been asking us how things are in our neck of the woods, I wanted to post our story and try to do so briefly...but I'm not very good at that! I would also love to hear your stories. I think it is good for us to share what we have been through so that we can bond together as a wider community – that is what our neighborhood has been doing this past week.

On Wednesday morning, I knew it would be a weird day. Initially planning to go in to work at the Lowe Mill @ noon, after the first round that ended around 12:30 pm I told my boss that I would just stay in today – better to be in my neighbor’s storm shelter than a factory! I climbed out of the shelter after that first round, and my neighbor said “I’ll see you in 3 hours when the next one hits!” The power was out at that point, so I relied on my mom to call or text me when it was time to head underground again. When she did call me, I immediately called Marty to find out if he would stay at work or come home. He was headed out when I called him, so I prayed that he would be able to make it without too much traffic or flooding. He arrived ten minutes before the big one, and I threw a sweatshirt, sneakers and a flashlight at him, scooped up the dog and fled for the shelter.

Marty had never believed that the sky turns green right before a big tornado but he recalls that eerie pea-soup color and lightning flashing in the sky all around us as we ran. Hail, a neighbor said, is what causes the green color. Hail is typical in a storm like this and often the green sky can be a warning. The neighbors were crawling into the shelter and we finally slammed it shut at the last minute, and bolted it down. In the shelter were: our two neighbors Debbie and Dale, their daughter, two grandchildren, our dog, and Marty and I. There wasn't room for comfort but I know we were all asking, "where is everyone else?"

As we huddled together in the shelter, we heard winds and rains pelting the sturdy metal door. I felt absolutely safe but prayed for the people huddling in their bathtubs and closets nearby. The storm grew eerily quiet first, and then our ears popped as the pressure dropped, and then came the rushing winds. The winds are all I remember really. I vaguely recall other noises but I think I blocked most of it out. Marty will tell you he remembers the rushing of wind but also the splitting of trees, the cracking of house structures, and the loud bang against the shelter door that we later discovered was part of a shed. We stood wide eyed in wait. Neither the 5 year old or the infant screamed. As the noises and the winds ceased, I remember thinking that the winds were pretty intense, but it probably wasn't anything serious. 15 minutes after the worst we hear a loud bang on the door and I jumped. We realized it's Wayne, their daughter's boyfriend. He had just driven through the storm. He looked at us all with an unflinching face to tell us about the debris he had to plow over on his way over. He said "the field is covered with debris. I just drove through a war zone - your neighborhood's gone - except for your houses at the end of this street." Everyone thought he was lying - I looked up at Marty who rolled his eyes and whispered "Right. I'll believe it when I see it." After a few minutes when we felt it was safe to peek out, we jumped out and at once realized he was right. The first thing we noticed was debris in the yard, and as we stepped up we saw siding coming off of the neighbors houses across the street. But what we saw beyond our street when we walked through the fence was devastating. Debris everywhere - houses ripped into or leveled. People frantically running about asking "Where is my friend? Where is my neighbor? Do you know if this family was home?" So we started running. We began calling into the skeletons of houses, "is anyone in here?" And we met up with people who had gathered in the street. Most were just in shock, shaking their heads, sharing stories, embracing strangers, asking if everyone was okay.

A few minutes later people begin to yell "Another one's coming!" You could see the fear in people's eyes as they wondered where they would hide this time. Several people ran to neighbor's houses that were still intact. A couple followed us, Kelli and Carl. Their house had been split in half with them right in the middle. Since it was just two extra we decided to try the storm shelter. This time a family of five had jumped in as well, and our neighbors dragged their 3 dogs in, too. It was much tighter, but we felt better knowing that it was filled. That storm passed over us so we crawled out and commenced our sharing of stories and of checking on each other. Kelli and Carl stayed with us for the night. Several other houses on our street did the same for those whose homes were damaged or unlivable. Marty and Carl walked back to their house to grab Carl's guitars that had amazingly survived the weather. As they settled in for the night we got to hear their story. Kelli had run for the bathroom as the storm was upon them. Carl, just behind her, had the door slammed in his face so he had no choice but to hang on and wait. Right at that moment, he turned and watched his house behind him "explode." He said he knew he was going to die - he just wasn't sure what it would be that would do him in. That evening we stayed at our neighbor's house for a while and shared stories we'd heard and talked until we felt like trying to go to sleep. Several people were still missing. We heard of a family of six that was rumored to all have passed. This probably kept a lot of us up that night but a couple days later it was discovered that the family had been out of the house that day. Mercy! As we walked back we could see houses lit by flickering candles and spots of flashlights darting about. And I looked up and saw one star peeking from behind the dissipating clouds. We've always been able to see the stars clearly out in the county, but the contrast with the dark streets was a comfort to me.

The past few days the community seems to be moving together through the same emotions - from shock to sorrow, and then some to anxiety, and finally, most of us, to hope. Most of us are murmuring, "It's just stuff, after all. Just stuff. We'll get through this." We've seen an incredible outpouring from nearby residents and people from the city coming in to bring in food or helping hands to salvage a few precious belongings. People from the street behind us have set up a food station - they've been grilling out and serving sandwiches and drinks all day for the past few days. Someone drove by handing out ice cream bars and popsicles. The police and national guard are posted at the entryways to ID everyone so as to keep looters away, so we feel safe.

I've been asking God why - why did so much devastation occur on the next street over - and our house is virtually untouched, save for a few missing shingles? It seems unfair, in a way. But as I sit in my house mulling it over, my house feels more like a house of cards than one of brick and wood. Everything is temporary, and I feel that now more than ever. One lady I spoke with was exclaiming "God is judging us - it's time for us to get right with Him. This is His wrath!" And I wanted to grab her and tell her "No. No. God is not punishing us. He does not cause disaster for our punishment, but allows things to happen for good in the end." His ways are a mystery at times. I recently told someone that you do not enter into Christianity for "comfort" but for Truth, because embracing a lie can never bring any sort of comfort. But what you are surprised to find when you embrace Truth is that "in Christ our comfort overflows." We know that nothing is out of the grasp of an almighty and loving God. As a Christian I know and have witnessed that God loves to take a tragedy and turn it into His good. I picture Him rushing in after the wind, not to tear us down, but to build us up again. Lives have been lost, but to everything there is a season. And while we have grieved with our neighbors over lives lost and possessions destroyed, we have rejoiced together over lives preserved, generosity welling up, and hope that shines through despair.

Today we are at my dad's house in Tennessee and will be here until tomorrow. It's been nice to get back into "civilization," but I keep thinking about my neighbors back home that I've gotten to know and grown closer with. We hurt for our community. So far we have one fatality in our neighborhood, maybe two. And as we've been able to watch TV we've heard more about how widespread the devastation really is. At first it seemed like our community was alone in our troubles since that's all we'd seen or known. Now it's heart-wrenching to hear countless other stories of destruction and lives lost all over the area. I saw one of our neighbors on the news who said that although they lost everything, they love their community and plan to rebuild and stay in the neighborhood. We are cheered by this and look forward to continuing to live out our lives with all of our neighbors we now call friends.

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by Des_a_rae, May 05, 2011
Yes it is nice to meet someone so close! :) I wished it was under better circumstances though. I acutally live in the Gadsden Area.  Yes, Dr. Berry's is okay! :)  And like you said I'm sure he's super busy with all those poor animals. :(   You're absolutely right, we rode up through Piedmont the next day with my dad, he wanted to go back and check on the ones they had helped.  It was such a tear jerker.  Knowing you helped save someone, they were soo grateful and I have never been more proud of my family as I was that day. My dad lives right down the road from me and found a receipt from Mississippi.  It's amazing how far this stuff travels.
I feel the same way you do, we have a limited amount of income ourselves (just spent over $1000 trying to fix my car ugh ) and you always want to do so much more.  But in our hearts we know IF we had more..we'd do more!  That's what counts and we're doing all we can do.   :)

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by cnj76, May 05, 2011
I live in Ragland so I've seen the destruction but Shoal Creek Valley not far from here got hit very bad. It's a sad thing that we are all going through but we are not broken. We will all come back from this! Alabama is much too strong not to :)

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by AHP84, May 05, 2011
I'm so relieved to know Dr. Berry's clinic and the staff are alright! Thank God for protecting it all--those animals need him. He's such a great veterinarian!

My gosh, a reciept from Mississippi all the way at the northeastern part of Alabama?!

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by AHP84, May 05, 2011
cnj76--
Well said! :-)

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