As I write this, it’s been four weeks to the day since Alabama was hammered by a record-setting tornado outbreak. It’s an event that many of us, even those whose homes or families were not directly affected, are still trying to cope with—emotionally, psychologically, even spiritually.
Immediately after the tornadoes, I found myself obsessively watching video clips of the storms that hit Birmingham and Tuscaloosa. It was like those days after 9/11 when it was almost impossible not to watch, over and over, as those planes flew into the World Trade Center.
I attended a discussion of the storm and recovery hosted by the Tedx Red Mountain group at the Avon Theatre in Lakeview on May 19. One of the speakers, ABC 33/40 weatherman James Spann, showed a video of the powerful storm that struck Cullman April 27 at about 3 p.m. I thought about the people and places I know in Cullman and, even though the storm was in the past, I found myself fighting back tears.
And it hasn’t been easy for the all-star weatherman. “I still haven’t had time to really decompress over the last three weeks,” Spann said. “I still haven’t gotten enough sleep.”
I feel you, man. And it occurs to me, when does recovery actually begin? And which lessons of the storm should we never forget? These were some of the things I had in mind the following day, a Friday, when Birmingham Weekly managing editor Sam George and I drove to Cordova and Cullman.
We visited volunteers at a donation center, including Cordova native Dennis Thompson. He described the emotions area residents have experienced since the storm. “We’ve been just a whirlwind of emotion, good and bad, from one end of the spectrum to another,” he said. “We’ve seen tragedies. We’ve seen heartbreak. We’ve seen joys, and we’ve seen triumphs through all this.”
What are some of the joys? “Some of the homeless families [have] actually gotten places and are starting to move to other homes as they find places to rent,” Thompson said. He cited government agencies and the Walker County Coalition for the Homeless as having helped in this effort.
Despite extensive property damage in Cordova, there were relatively few fatalities, given the storm’s severity. However, when a co-worker said that the town had been “lucky,” volunteer Lottie Hendricks disagreed, suggesting the presence of a divine hand. “It wasn’t luck,” Hendricks said. “We were blessed. It wasn’t no luck to it.”
Builder and lifelong Cullman resident Edgar Veigl served as our tour guide in that city, taking Sam and me to the historic residential district east of downtown that has seen much property damage and the destruction of thousands of trees.
Veigl took us to see the remains of the Woerz house, a stucco house with 2-foot-thick rock walls built in 1890. According to Veigl, who is a long-time family friend, 89-year-old Marie Woerz Holloway lived in the house and rode out the storm there with her niece and her niece’s 9-weekold grandchild, a little girl, even though the roof structure and most of the second floor were ripped away. Unable to open the cellar door, they had huddled in a room on the first floor, the only one where the windows didn’t break out, and the niece covered the baby with her body, Veigl says. Only the house’s solid construction saved their lives, though the house will probably have to be torn down.
Standing on the debris-strewn front porch, Veigl had me look to the west at the damaged steeple of the First Baptist Church downtown. “You could not see that whole neighborhood prior to this because of the trees,” he said.
Even in the midst of loss is a sense of humor.
In front of the house is the metal frame of a large bowling pin that Veigl says once sat in front of the old Cullman Bowling Center. The late Pete Woerz had saved it and, after the storm, members of the three families with ties to the property stood it up in front of the house with a sign reading, “Almost a strike.”
Large sections of downtown Cullman were in decent shape, though—as in Tuscaloosa—the parts that were hit by the storm were hit very hard. For example, Sacred Heart Catholic Church suffered only minor damage, while a Lutheran church a few blocks away was all but destroyed. “It’s really where you happen to be, and when you happen to be there,” Veigl said.
Sacred Heart is special to Veigl, a lifelong member. He took charge of a $750,000 renovation in 1999 of the church’s twin steeples. Right after the storm passed, and as soon as he knew that his family was safe, Veigl had asked his sister, who was downtown, to check to see if the magnificent steeples, which help define the city’s viewscape, had survived. They had.
Raymond Young, owner of the Mary Carter Paint store on Fourth Street East downtown, is open for business, even though his historic commercial building was badly damaged in the storm. Young, his wife and two sons were at the store when the storm hit. “We looked out the west window and saw [the storm] crossing the interstate, and we got in the back of the [adjoining] shoe store, as far east as we could go in this building,” Young says. “Once it hit, it was one heck of a racket. You could hear the roof coming off and glass breaking, what seemed to me like a good 30 seconds. It could have been 10 seconds. It could have been a minute. You lose track of time.”
So, for the Youngs, life and business go on.
And even though the Woerz house is destroyed, the infant girl who survived its destruction was baptized at Sacred Heart the Sunday after the storm, with Veigl and his wife Beth as godparents. “Her little head was all pocked up with scabs from the little debris that came through,” Veigl says.
The way that normal life continues even just a few blocks from scenes of horrific destruction can be comforting, but also a little unsettling. I always feel, somewhere in my little brain, that life should not go on as normal, not yet.
I remember standing on Green Avenue in Cordova while Sam took pictures. It was sunny. Birds were tweeting. Down the road to my right, I saw a squirrel hopping across the road. For that squirrel, there’s no grief, no looking back. There is only today, even though the town laid out in the valley below us looked as if it had been hit by hundreds of mortar rounds.
When Sam and I went to Tuscaloosa on May 1, and before we were able to view the damaged areas on 15th Street, we drove down University Boulevard through the heart of the University of Alabama campus, past Denny Chimes and the Quadrangle, as I’ve done hundreds of times. The quad had never looked so lush and green, and there were three kids playing Frisbee, even though we were only blocks from unbelievable destruction.
So life must go on, but we can’t forget the lessons we’ve learned. That nature’s power is immense. That our power is small. That, even if you’re an agnostic hep-cat, you have to see that there is some transcendent power that defines where we as humans can venture and where we cannot. That we do not choose when our proverbial number is up, though we can take steps to make ourselves a little safer.
And that, as corny as it sounds, all we have— during the recovery and after—is each other.
We can’t wallow in the horror and despair, but they have lessons to teach us. I’m still trying to figure out what they are.