Tornado in Cullman

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.


Filed under writing

12 responses to “Tornado in Cullman

  1. So sad, Deborah. I used to live in Montgomery and have seen devastation several times in Alabama and Georgia over the years. Many people don’t even know of the troubles faced by these good folks and how strong and faith filled they are. Yes, they will rebuild and set wonderful examples for many.

  2. Cullman wasn’t nearly as hard hit as Tuscaloosa–can’t even imagine what that city looks like. My thoughts will continue to be with the people of all the counties devastated, long after I return home to Arizona.

  3. christinehusom

    Oh, my! We have tornados in MN and some have been very devastating. My heart goes out to those people! Thanks for a more intimate look at what happened there.

  4. Joe Finnerty

    The pictures say it all. What a nightmare for those affected by such winds. Your words convey the spirit of the residents, ready to move forward despite the carnage.
    The metro Phoenix area has experienced storms in the past that knocked down large steel utility poles, and one year, took the roofs off many residences on Shea near 60th Street, but I don’t believe the Weather Bureau ever deemed them to be tornadoes. A rose is a rose is a rose.

  5. It was wild, Joe. So happy to be back in Arizona. Although the people of Cullman are still on my mind.
    Right. They call them “micro-bursts” out here.

  6. Youknow, you watch the news, and it affects you, but then you get on with your life. We forget that these people can’t just change the channel.

  7. Deb,
    Great eye-opening, first-hand account of what it’s like to be in and live through a tornado like those folks in Cullman did. Being from the midwest, we lived in constant fear from April through the end of summer of this sort of thing happening. I personally have expereinced tornadoes, having survived a direct hit when we were camping many years ago in the Indiana Dunes National Park in northwest Indiana. It’s still difficult to this day to describe the fear that comes over you when you’re right in the path of a twister, especially at night when this particular one hit our campsite.
    Thank you for helping out down there and the great on-the-scene reporting.

  8. Terrifying, Pascal. I can’t even imagine experience a tornado first-hand. Something you should write about! Use your true gift to write about this–maybe even as a short story.

  9. Sherrie Hansen

    I missed this when it was posted last year. Excellent article – very frightening. I wrote a tornado scene in Stormy Weather. They terrify me. I hope the past year has brought healing to all in the areas that were hit, and I hope this year does NOT bring the kind of severe weather we saw last spring and summer.

  10. Thank you, Sherrie. I can’t imagine living in an area where tornados are common.

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