By Robin DeMonia
It took only seconds for a tornado to destroy Kay Spanick's Concord home. While the storm killed four people nearby, Spanick emerged from the mangled remains of her home with her aging father, husband and dog?--?unhurt, but not unscathed.
Everything spared by the twister was coated with bits of glass, fiberglass and insulation. The gritty mixture packed even the pockets of Spanick's pants. "It took me two days to get the stuff out of my hair," she says.
A year later, settled into a different home in a different neighborhood, Spanick still battles the stubborn residue of the storm.
Physical reminders assault her as she drives past her old community, where stalks of bare trees frame an alien landscape: new houses, old wreckage and lonely driveways. And her emotions attack from within.
In the months since the storm, Spanick has been grieved, angry, grateful, afraid. Most of all, she has been terrified of another storm. It didn't help Jan. 23 when her father's vacant home in Center Point was hit, too, by a twister. "It's like going through it all over again," she says. "I don't think it'll ever be over."
The tornado outbreak on April 27 marked a turning point for thousands of Alabamians, and not just its direct victims. "I like to say the tornado literally and figuratively has changed our landscape," says Suzanne Durham, the CEO of the YWCA of Central Alabama.
Some see the tornado outbreak as Alabama's 9/11, and it's easy enough to see the parallels in our devastating encounter with this menace: We were shocked to discover our own vulnerability. We were determined to be better prepared. And we felt a new sense of closeness and connection to our community.
"It's not 'seven degrees of separation,'" says John De Block, warning coordination meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Calera. "If you weren't personally impacted by this storm, you know someone who was."
In all, 62 tornadoes hit Alabama that day, killing at least 248 people, injuring more than 2,000, and leaving almost 14,000 homes wiped out or badly damaged. In Jefferson County, 21 people died. In the two areas with the most extensive damage?--?Pleasant Grove and the Pratt City area of Birmingham?--?close to a thousand homes were destroyed. The same tornado had just torn through the heart of Tuscaloosa, barely missing the University of Alabama. In storms in Cordova and Cullman, downtown businesses crumbled. Where the strongest tornadoes hit, in such places as Hackleburg, the destruction was near complete.
The event was so profound it involved us all as witnesses and participants.
"I think the tornadoes changed everybody," says Lisa Turley, the director of Project Rebound, a state crisis-counseling program that sprang to action after the storms. "We're all survivors in this."
One year later, the most obvious change is the respect we afford the weather. Since 1950, Alabama has had more tornado deaths than any other state. But before April 27, many of us didn't consider ourselves personally at risk. Now, we're not so sure.
Vestavia Hills' school system quickly recruited Impact Family Counseling to work with students in areas affected by the storms. "They had kids afraid to come back to school and others who were coming but not learning because all they could think about was the trauma," says George Casey, Impact's executive director.
At Concord Elementary, students have bounced back remarkably well, but fears return when there's even a chance of bad weather, says David Foster, the principal of the school, which had two student deaths and 25 families with damage. Children whose homes were hit still have occasional nightmares, their parents say. But storms also unsettle children who weren't personally affected, Foster says.
Now, Foster uses his morning announcements to reassure children when the forecast is iffy. "We're going to keep an eye on the weather here in the office, so you don't have to worry about it," he tells the children. Otherwise, he says, "We have some that would worry quite a bit."
Adults are on edge, too. The Alcohol and Drug Abuse Council, a community counseling agency in Birmingham, has a number of clients who are survivors of last year's tornadoes, including some who work as first responders. Weather anxiety is a common problem. "When the tornadoes hit in January, it shook some of them up again," says Mark Phillips, a counselor at the agency.
Meteorologists and emergency managers expect our fixation on twisters to fade over time. But while it lasts, they are seizing the chance to preach the gospel of weather preparedness.
For James Spann and Mark Prater?--?the chief meteorologists at ABC 33/40 and CBS 42, respectively?--?it's something like a crusade.
Spann says some deaths on April 27 were unavoidable. But he believes most victims simply failed to heed warnings or to make choices that could have saved their lives.
"That's what haunts me at night," he says. "Professionally, for the rest of my days in this business, I want to fix this."
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Volunteers from Birmingham Regional Empowerment and Development Center and Bethel Missionary Baptist Church pass out water in the Winewood community in January. (Photo by Michelle Campbell)
For now, people are listening, and one result is that NOAA weather radios are selling faster than some stores can keep them in stock. "This is like we've never seen before," Prater says.
At just one Fox 6 weather event in Center Point early this year, the National Weather Service's De Block says, 1,400 NOAA radios were purchased. The station came back a second day and sold 900 more, he says. "That's 2,300 just in Center Point in two days," he says.
That's not all. Alabamians also are signing up for services that deliver personal weather warnings by phone, email or text. They're stocking up on emergency supplies, including helmets that UAB research suggests saved lives last April. And they're giving much more thought to what qualifies as a safe place.
Ralph Woodfin, whose Birmingham home was destroyed April 27, decided against rebuilding in his South Hampton neighborhood because of its history of tornadoes. He and his wife had all but settled on a house to buy elsewhere?--?until the tornado Jan. 23. Woodfin reconsidered the choice as he sat atop a washing machine in the laundry room, the most secure place in his temporary home in downtown Birmingham.
"If it's going to be like this," Woodfin told his wife, "we need to consider something with a basement."
Since April, thousands of Alabamians have gone even further and bought storm shelters for their homes.
Woodfin's South Hampton neighbor Jessie Calhoun, for one, will have a safe room in her rebuilt home. She blames last year's tornadoes on climate change and believes more disasters will come. "This world has been here a long time, and now, it's falling apart," she says.
Others share Calhoun's desire for refuge, if not her rationale. For companies selling premanufactured storm shelters, business hasn't let up since last April. "The main thing that I hear is, 'We never thought we needed a shelter until now,'" says Keith Gwin of Concord, who opened Central Alabama Storm Shelters after the tornado outbreak.
In what disaster officials say is just a small reflection of the demand, more than 4,000 Alabama households applied for federal grants to help pay for home shelters. Among the applicants on the list: De Block, who on April 27 worked a 12-hour shift at the National Weather Service and went home to huddle with his family in the basement, where he heard "James Spann calling out my street."
"We experienced it, too," De Block says of the tornado outbreak.
While his community was spared, the fierce storms made De Block and his colleagues increasingly bold in prodding people to take steps to protect themselves from tornadoes. "There's no excuse not to be ready," he tells audiences now.
The fact that predawn tornadoes on Jan. 23 killed only two people shows the message is getting through, says Art Faulkner, director of the Alabama Emergency Management Agency.
"There were many, many, many more people that reacted, that were up and were in their safe place, and that had a plan," Faulkner says. "We do believe that people are listening, and we are extremely pleased with that."
Some of the same feelings that led us to get serious about weather safety also made us more sympathetic to others who shared our helplessness that day. "This event really let people have the opportunity to realize we're not all that different," Turley says.
It triggered a tremendous outpouring of charity, with at least $30 million flowing just into the major relief and recovery organizations. Meanwhile, thousands of volunteers streamed into storm-stricken areas, says Jon Mason, director of the Governor's Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives.
By early July, at least 70,000 volunteers had signed up for service?--?and that doesn't include all the volunteers affiliated with church groups and traditional relief organizations or volunteers who simply showed up without registering. Mason says the response easily has involved hundreds of thousands of volunteers.
The outpouring was so huge in some cases, it created problems.
"So many people wanted to help so quickly that you had to, No. 1, hold volunteers back because of safety," Mason says. "Then there was the whole herding-cats thing."
But for those in the business of recruiting volunteers, April 27 was a boon. In the months after the storms, more than 15,000 people went to the Hands On Birmingham website for information or to sign up for volunteer opportunities, says Bob Boylan, the county outreach coordinator for the agency.
Some of the new volunteers have now become old hands. After their big volunteer effort for the storm, Honda employees came back simply to clean and beautify Maclin Park, Boylan says. And some individual volunteers haven't missed a Hands on Birmingham event since, he says. "They discovered us through the tornadoes, and now, they keep coming back," he says.
As a board member for the Community Foundation of Greater Birmingham, Neal Berte played a role in raising millions of dollars for tornado recovery. But Berte also spent a day clearing away trees in Concord, and he believes that kind of investment pays a different kind of dividend. "When you get involved, it gives you a connectedness you can't have any other way," he says.
Some of the bonds forged in the disaster continue to have an impact.
When Cindy Butts of Hueytown goes to Walmart these days, she is apt to run into people she while met delivering meals in Concord after the storms. "They remember me," she says. Butts delivered those meals through her church, Union Hill Baptist, which provided a range of assistance to the community. Although the congregation wasn't looking to benefit, Union Hill now sees some of the people it helped at its services. "We went from having 300 to 400 coming to almost 500," Butts says.
Officials also believe they see remnants of April in the robust volunteer response to January's tornadoes. In a number of cases, the volunteers were former victims.
Among the churches sending help to Center Point was Bethel Baptist in Pleasant Grove, a congregation deeply affected by last year's storms. The church had 39 families directly affected by the April tornadoes, and it became a busy hub for those bringing supplies and volunteers. Since then, it has formed its own disaster relief crew. "Just as people came and helped us," Pastor Rick Cato says, "we can go and help others."
In one of the most celebrated outgrowths of April 27, the storms fostered a multitude of new partnerships among government entities, religious congregations, secular charities, communities and individuals.
"We were reminded that we really could come together," James Spann says. "It was so darn refreshing. All of these issues that divide us just went away for a while."
Despite the extensive storm damage in its own service area, for
instance, the United Way of Central Alabama helped support recovery work in areas that lack Birmingham's resources, says Drew Langloh, the United Way's president and CEO. "We really raised money for the entire state," he says.
And while Temple Emanu-El is involved in many interfaith efforts, the April 27 disaster marked the first time it had sent money and volunteers to the Christian Service Mission, Rabbi Jonathan Miller says.
"When you offer help, people don't ask you whether you're Jewish or Muslim or what kind of Christian you are," Miller says. "They say 'thank you,' which is probably how God wants it."
Don Lupo, director of the Mayor's Office of Citizens Assistance in Birmingham, recalls an instance when the National Guard delivered supplies to Pratt City, but no forklift was there to unload the truck.
"There were several of us standing there trying to decide what to do," Lupo says. "About 50 Muslims came around the corner and saw what was happening. This man jumped up on the bed of the truck and ... he started pulling the sides off. The men formed two lines, and in 20 minutes, the truck was unloaded.
"We would still be standing there trying to figure it out."
Many believe new relationships formed in the disaster will be beneficial for years to come. Hopes are particularly high for the new community collaborations that have come from within devastated neighborhoods.
Efforts to rebuild have fueled a new neighborhood association in Concord, a new community network in Pleasant Grove and new improvement cooperative in Pratt City.
Alonzo Darrow, president of the Pratt Community, says the new organization unites churches, neighborhood associations and others in an effort to not just rebuild but revitalize the area?--?a much more ambitious work than any of them could accomplish alone.
"Everybody was doing their own little thing," he says. "It was about getting everybody under one umbrella."
Steve Ostaseski, principal planner at the Regional Planning Commission of Greater Birmingham, says each of the groups faces unique challenges. But the effort to confront the challenges is fostering the development of new leadership, initiative and skills within communities. "They kind of tapped that inner energy they have," he says. "They're understanding they can do these things themselves."
In a disaster so large, even well-established organizations found themselves stretched in new directions. The Community Foundation had benefit concerts, the United Way a telethon. Many learned the power of social media.
Among other things, Facebook and Twitter proved invaluable for delivering dire weather warnings. "You've got some people walking around today because of social media," Spann says.
Afterward, social media outlets were used for everything: to reunite storm victims with their pets and wind-blown belongings, and to broadcast communities' most critical needs. But sometimes, the fast-traveling tidbits created confusion, as when multiple people tweeted identical appeals for supplies, without specifying a quantity and without following up when the request was filled. As a result, a community needing 10 boxes of diapers might end up with 10,000, Mason says, while another area got nothing.
One year later, Mason's office is working with various groups to develop guidelines for managing social media. It's part of what Mason sees as the "long-lasting legacy" of a watershed event.
The watershed event continues to affect many Alabamians in intensely personal ways.
"I have had some depression from this whole experience," says Donna Sartain, the director of the Pleasant Grove Public Library, who lost a devoted volunteer in the storm and who had relatives lose homes. "It is very hard looking at the storm path every day. ... Some days, it is like I am seeing it for the first time again. I relive that day over and over."
Shelia Hurd is working her way through grief for her mother, one of two people who died in Pratt City. "I still have to keep moving forward with my life and learn a new normal without her," Hurd says.
By March, Project Rebound had counseled close to 23,000 people, Turley says. They are not getting over April 27 anytime soon, but they are getting through it as best they can.
"You've got to go on," Spanick says. "Right now, what we're trying to do is make new memories at this house and go from here."
Sitting on her kitchen counter is an inspiration?--?a ceramic angel Spanick found buried at the site of her old home after the lot had been cleared by a bulldozer. How the angel got there is a mystery; it did not belong to Spanick. When she wiped off the dirt, Spanick found the angel perfectly intact, without so much as a scratch. Spanick looks at it now and likes what she sees: a survivor.