The next morning the sun was shining but there was a stillness in the air. Something had happened and people were not the only ones affected. It was like all of nature was grieving.
We decided to head to the school. The school had always been a base of operations for the community and we figured it would be the best place to start. The damage reports had gotten worse throughout the night. Significant damage had been reported to the school and throughout the county. Heading towards Oak Grove, we crossed the path of a much smaller and weaker tornado than the one that had been reported. It was the same tornado, but obviously this was not the same monster that had developed just a few short miles from here. The damage at this part of the path was at the time consistent with F1-F2 damage. Significant at first sight, but compared to what we would see, there was no comparison.
As we approached Oak Grove, the road was blocked by local law enforcement.“No one is allowed in,” he said. Reluctantly we returned home. To our surprise our power was back on. A first, as we are usually one of the last houses to get our power back on. A friend of ours that worked for the power company stopped by and said power had been rerouted. There was nothing to hook power lines to in a large portion of the county and it could be several weeks before our power could be restored if we had to wait for the new poles to be reset in the storm’s path.
I bolted into the living room and turned the news on. Aerial helicopter footage of affected areas in the Rock Creek community was the first image to appear on the screen. I was astounded at what I saw. There were miles and miles of complete devastation; a truly horrific scene. That was not what I encountered on our morning journey.
Shortly thereafter, came the official word to head to the school. My mom worked at the school and they had asked all staff to report. I held my breath as we loaded back up into the truck.
Approaching the school, the first sign of damage was to the trees. So many of them were missing. The community is called Oak Grove for a reason. The towering oaks that greeted you in the center of the community had now been shredded like a head of cabbage for a bag of cole slaw. The expanse and scope of the destruction at the school made my stomach sink. For a few minutes I thought I was going to see my breakfast again. I had never seen anything like this, nor want to see again.
Stepping out at the school, there was a crunch underneath my feet as I stepped on a pile of shattered glass. It was obvious more than glass had been shattered that night. Twisted steel looked like silly string and there were piles of rubble everywhere. Words could never begin to describe the scene. Complete and total destruction of a building and community that for so many people had been a safe haven from the problems of the outside world. A close knit community had been unwound. Every sense of security was gone, and the heart of the community had now been exposed. The same story echoed through numerous communities across the western sections of the county that day. People had dazed and confused looks on their faces and enough tears were shed that day to fill the Warrior River.
So many questions with so few answers.
Where were we going to go to school?
Where else did the storm impact?
Were there any fatalities?
Was everyone associated with the school accounted for?
And the most poignant one- What if the storm would’ve hit during school hours?
Picking up the pieces at the school that morning, we heard more and more stories of the destruction across the county. The tornado roared through, ripping apart lives and homes, discriminating against no one. Disheartening were the stories of lives lost, but encouragement and hope came from the stories of survival.
One such story happened at the school that night. A group of cheerleaders had been practicing in the gym. As the tornado dismantled the school complex, like most of the buildings there, the gym collapsed. The cheerleaders were caught between the beams of the collapsed roof, in a space just big enough for them, and miraculously they all survived.
The teacher that asked me the question the day before about expecting more activity; he had been in his home which was directly in the path of the storm in the Rock Creek community. We learned that he was in the ICU at one of the local hospitals and he would stay there for several weeks.
Leaving the school we set out towards Hueytown to check on my grandparents. The community of Rock Creek was in our path that day, just like it had been in the tornado’s the night before. It was here that the full strength of the tornado had been unleashed and the damage was even more significant. It was obvious that this had been no common tornado, this had been a monster. Once in the community, nothing looked as it had. Traveling a road I had traveled thousands of times, I found myself lost, disoriented and confused. I could not recognize where I was. There was no recognizable sign of anything that had been. The only clear direction I could make out was up. How would the affected areas ever seem to be normal again? The answer to that question proved to be time.
Later, as many wounds began to heal, the weatherman in me began to ask willing victims questions about that evening. Many chose not to discuss it, and I completely understood that. But some, knowing the weather nut I am were happy to share their experience with me. The teacher said that he remembered watching the news and stepped outside and just noticed the constant unending lightning; something he had never seen before. He then proceeded to the hallway of his home. Seconds later he found himself airborne in the center of the twister. He remembered landing on his refrigerator door, not his refrigerator and the next memory was waking up at the hospital. I made sure to remind him of what I said earlier in that day…”the day ain’t over with yet.” He just laughed. He made a full recovery from the storm and went back to teaching, with a slightly different outlook on life.
It would take months and years before any normalcy returned to the areas impacted by the storm that night, and if you ask some, normalcy has never returned. Driving through the community today, time has helped heal many wounds from that night. The tornado’s path can still be seen, homes have been built and rebuilt in the area and life seems to go on. The landscape as well as many lives still carry scars from that night. Scars never completely heal and serve as a reminder, not of how much we were hurt in the past, but how much we have healed from the past, how far we’ve come and how far we still have to go.
In no way could I ever do justice to all the victims and survivors of this horrendous event in this simple post. April’s Fury, as this event would later be called, took the lives of 32 people in Jefferson County and 2 in St Clair County. It forever changed the lives and landscape of communities across Central Alabama.
Category: Alabama's Weather