Tornadoes and floods ravaging the south and midwest this spring are the costliest natural disasters to hit the United States since Katrina slammed into the gulf coast in 2005 – both in lost lives and property damage.
Nearly 100 reported tornadoes whirled their way across northwest Alabama in late April killing at least 238 people and causing billions of dollars in property loss. From Tennessee to Louisiana, May floods continue to claim entire towns and thousands of acres of farmlands along the mighty Mississippi River. Most recently, tornadoes killed at least 14 people in Oklahoma City, Okla., and more than 130 people in Joplin, Mo.
As soon as the deadly tornadoes subsided in Alabama, Tim Smith, post commander at Wright Brothers American Legion Post 210 in Montgomery knew he had to do something.
“I was at a loss as to what to do, who to call or even what to ask,” Smith said. “I started sending out e-mails and making phone calls to people I knew in the area, and it didn’t take long to formulate an plan.”
Members of Post 210 and other people in the community began collecting items to deliver to tornado victims in the Tuscaloosa area. After two late nights of sorting and boxing donated items, Smith and about 10 members of his post loaded the boxes and headed to Tuscaloosa.
“We arrived at the drop-off center and then looked around for someone who could tell us how we could help,” Smith said. “As it turned out, there was little we could do at the time because people needed heavy equipment to help them dig out.”
A combat veteran, Smith said he was ill-prepared for the devastation he witnessed.
“I had seen the piles and piles of debris on television news reports, but I was shocked and overwhelmed when I saw first-hand the damage caused by the tornadoes,” he said. “Man-made destruction as a result of war pales in comparison to what Mother Nature has done to Alabama. It makes me sick at heart to see what people are going through.”
As Post 210 Legionnaires walked through one Tuscaloosa neighborhood, a lady identifying herself as Shirley hailed the group. She told a tale of near disaster for her family. The tornado ripped apart her two-story home seconds after she, her husband and daughter dove for cover in the basement and a storage room.
“Shirley began to cry and we all gathered around to comfort her,” Smith said. “Later, as she wept, we all stood around helpless while she sifted through the rubble looking for any personal items she could save to maybe pass on to her daughter.”
Ninety miles to the north, the residents of Hackleburg were also trying to piece together their lives as they sifted through the rubble. Twenty-seven people died in the small close-knit Marion County community; two were members of the Legion family – John Garner and his wife.
Garner was looking forward to tackling his new responsibilities as the recently elected commander of Hackleburg Post 165. He assumed the position under sad circumstances when John Bickerstaff, the previous post commander, died of cancer during his term.
Hackleburg can only be described as looking like a war zone. Family homes, churches, banks, storefront businesses, nearby farmhouses and the city hal where Post 165 met monthly,were leveled or damaged by the F-5, 210 miles per hour Hackleburg tornado. This single tornado claimed 70 lives along its path.
Seventy-five miles to the southeast, Cordova Police Chief Kenneth Bobo knew as soon as the tornado slammed through his town that his small police force would need reinforcements. His experience taught him that looters and scam artists would soon descend into the area if they were not already nosing around.
"Our town is a mess,” Bobo said. “It hasn’t sunk in yet. It’s been non-stop. And that’s how it has to be because as soon as you slow down it hits you. Your emotions catch up. That’s not good right now.”
Bobo said dealing with the devastation was easy compared with notifying families that one of their loved ones had perished. Four people died in the Cordova tornado. “That’s the hardest thing I have to do,” the chief said.
As in other communities across northwest Alabama, a Cordova bank vault seemed to be the lone structure immune to the devastating effects of the F-5 wind. The bank’s manager was seen on a concrete slab of his former bank removing undamaged World War II memorabilia stored in the bank’s vault and showing interested passersby. “A lot of people lost a lot of memories because of this tornado,” he said, “but not all was lost.”
Birmingham suburb communities Pratt City and Pleasant Grove also were leveled by the April 27 tornadoes. From the air, a wide swath of destruction is easy to see – a corridor bulldozed by the F-4 and F-5 tornadoes during their 100-mile plus traverse of the state. On the ground, it’s a different story.
There was little left of the two flattened communities except rubble, American flags and religious icons strategically placed as if to reinforce a claim to the individual debris scattered homesteads. Vehicles were indiscriminately mangled and tossed into the fray. Entire apartment complexes were raised, leaving only concrete pads. Nearly a dozen Pleasant Grove residents lost their lives and at least 39 people died in Pratt City as a result of the tornadoes.
On the other side of town, near White’s Chapel, R.A. Singleton was chipping away at a large tree that had fallen and crushed his mobile home.
“Just the other day I finished most of the remodeling inside,” Singleton said over the roar and through the smoke of his chainsaw. “Now all this tree and trailer are good for is firewood. No way can I fix this mess. It’s a total loss.”
Fifty-seven miles west in Berry, Army Sgt. Maj. Jim Dunaway, working out of the local FEMA Disaster Center, explained the small town’s condition.
“These last tornadoes are the worst I have ever see in these parts,” Dunaway said. “It’s impossible to describe the damage to someone who has not been on the ground to see it. And the loss of life is tragic to say the least. I hope and pray we never have to go through something like this again.”
Bessemer, Ala., police officer Wayne Campbell, Army Sgt. Maj. Jim Dunaway and F. Wayne Turner, Alabama American Legion National Executive Committeeman assisted in the preparation of this article.