If you haven’t made a visit to one of the Alabama communities hit hardest by the April tornadoes—Tuscaloosa, for example, or Pratt City, or Pleasant Grove, or the small Jefferson County town of Concord—it may be impossible for you to visualize the terrifying tracks the storms left behind.
“It doesn’t matter how many pictures you see, or Internet photos or videos you see, until you come out here and you see it,” according to Daniel McClurkin, one of a group of volunteers from Birmingham who cleared debris from the remains of a home in Concord on a recent Friday.
No one in the group had been to Concord before, according to Angelia Brown. “When we drove through, we were all kind of chatty and talking in the truck, and when we got to this area it got quiet just from looking at the devastation,” she said. “It brought us back to reality and made us realize how blessed we are.”
One volunteer compared the blasted landscape on either side of Warrior River Road to “a bad dream.” Of course, the tornado was more than just a bad dream to area residents, who—five weeks after the storm—are still clearing tons of debris, mourning their dead and hoping that Concord can rebuild.
The students and teachers of Concord Elementary School were wounded by the tornado. The school had 26 kids, from a total of 17 homes, displaced by the storm, according to a staff member.
Even worse, two students were killed—10year-old Michael David “Mikey” Kreider and his sister, 8-year-old Haley Alexis “Lexi” Kreider. The children perished in the storm along with their mother Michelle while taking shelter at a family friend’s home.
“The kids really loved [Michael] and they each had their little individual stories they shared about him when we had our memorial,” according to math teacher Keith McCroskey, referring to a service for the Kreiders held at the school recently. “Mikey was just a special child,” he said.
“He had a smile that could light up a room,” according to history teacher Jana Gallego.
Sherry Vann taught both Kreider kids in third grade. “I remember when I got the call,” she said. “They didn’t find Mikey and his mother right off. They found Lexi. And I felt like I was going to throw up. I mean it made me sick. They were like a lot of siblings, just night and day. Mikey came to school kind of to get busy and do his work, and Lexi came to socialize and see which friend she could get with. She was a real girly girl. Her daddy has said that, and it was true. She liked art, liked little stuffed animals.”
According to the teachers, the memorial service and other efforts at story-telling and remembrance are a way for Concord students to deal with their loss. “At first the children didn’t really want to write at all, but I think it has helped to write,” reading and science teacher Karen Myers said. “It has taken them a little while to think about things. Time heals, but it’s still difficult.”
Concord residents hope that time will also help heal their town and that people who lost their homes will not move away from the area. “I feel like several of the families who were wiped out are going to rebuild here,” McCroskey said. “I’ve heard a few—but I think it’s a small minority—who will probably move on and maybe go somewhere else.
“This is a really tight little community, though,” Vann said. “People aren’t going to just up and move off, because they’ve got parents and grandparents and aunts and uncles.
One area resident and clean-up worker told me that he has seen a drop-off in the number of volunteers recently, though there is plenty of debris left to clear. This is not surprising, according to McCroskey. “It’s not that people don’t want to, but at some point, a lot of these people who have contributed have got to go back to normal life,” he said. “I think the want may be there, but you’re going back to supporting your own family and taking care of them and you’ve got to find the time now to come back in.”
McClurkin, who like the others in his group was given a day off to volunteer by his employer, agrees that the will to help is there. “People want to do it,” he said. “Because you almost feel kind of guilty while you’re sitting there at work or wherever you are in your own home, when there’s all this stuff around you that needs to be done.”
And volunteers may learn some other lessons. “It’s just humbling to come out and see this,” McClurkin said. “You realize how small you are as a person and that material things can just be taken away from you in a second. It makes you think about what’s really important.”