On either side of Cochran Springs Road, there are forests of half-trees. Snapped by the massive storm that barreled through here on April 27, 2011, thousands of trunks stood here for a year like the chimneys of a burned city.
Now those trees are sprouting. New leaves have emerged from the broken trunks, covering the hills with a blanket of foliage.
Freshly built frame and log houses sit here and there along the road, one with a metal roof that shines like a newly minted penny. Some yards are still fields of dirt. Others are perfectly manicured, with seams still visible between the squares of fresh sod.
“I like it when I drive up 431 and see something growing,” said Denise Rucker, head of the area’s biggest storm recovery agency. “It was a nice surprise. For the first six or seven months, it looked like a war zone.”
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For Rucker, director of the Calhoun County Long-Term Recovery Committee, the greenery in the storm zone is both a symbol and a result of the progress that’s been made in the half-mile-wide band of storm damage that stretches across northern Calhoun County. People wouldn’t be able to see all that green, she said, without the months of work local residents put in, cleaning up storm debris.
“It’s been a lot of work, but progress is beginning to happen,” Rucker said.
About 200 homes here were destroyed and nine local residents killed in the April 27 storm. Local officials said 1,401 parcels of property in Calhoun County were damaged that day. Since then, Rucker said, 100 houses have been built by volunteers alone, and dozens more repaired after extensive damage. Most of those houses were built for people who didn’t have insurance before the storm – not an uncommon thing in this rural community, where many older residents lived in paid-off homes or on inherited land. Others had only enough insurance to pay off the homes that were destroyed.
Only 14 have outstanding requests for help with construction, Rucker said. But even those who have been helped are a long way from where they were before the storm.
Paul Heath is one of those people. For 24 of his 25 years, Heath lived with his parents in a house where U.S. 431 met Old Gadsden Highway. The storm moved that house off its foundation, ripped open the roof and collapsed three of the four walls. Today, Heath’s family lives in a double-wide trailer on the site of their old house.
He doesn’t expect things to change, much.
“FEMA gave us $30,000, because we weren’t insured,” he said. “We thought about leaving, but everywhere we looked, you couldn’t find anything less than $40,000. So we just stayed.”
Across the street, a neighbor lives on a bare, red-dirt hill in an RV with a tattered Confederate battle flag planted in front of it. Heath said the neighbor wants to rebuild, but chose an RV over a trailer in case he decides to bug out.
“I don’t think he’s decided whether he wants to stay,” Heath said.
No matter how much rebuilding is done, Sid Nichols said, it won’t bring back the community that was there.
“You can replace stuff, but you can’t replace yourstuff,” said Nichols, director of missions for the Calhoun Baptist Association, which has built 15 new houses and repaired perhaps 50 more.
Nichols said people outside the storm zone underestimate the emotional impact of the changes to the landscape.
“When I was a kid, I used to spend hours playing under a pecan tree over a sand bank,” he said. That tree was blown down in a storm years ago, and Nichols said “it will never be the same.”
Multiply that experience by a thousand cherished locations, Nichols said, and you’ve got the storm zone.
No one knows exactly how many people have left these communities for good. Rucker estimates that at least 5 percent of the population in storm-affected areas has moved on. Some may have gone to live with relatives, and simply put down roots in their new communities. Others just decided they don’t want to live in a place with so many bad memories, and so much work to do, she said.
All charity work
Even the laws of supply and demand don’t work quite right here.
In the wake of the storm, contractors expected an uptick in business, a much-needed relief after years of a housing slump. After all, hurricanes have been a boon to builders in past years.
It didn’t work that way for Sam Almaroad, owner of Sam Almaroad Construction. He built just one house for pay. The owners had insurance, and could afford it. He oversaw the construction of 13 homes by volunteers for the First Baptist Church of Williams.
“People would come from out of state and volunteer to work on the homes,” he said. “And there would be one builder like myself who would look over that construction until it was completed.”
Josh Moses, owner of Moses Construction and president of the Home Builders Association of Greater Calhoun County, said he did “basically all charity work.”
Both contractors said they did see a little bump from customers whose houses weren’t destroyed, just in need of repair.
“Roofers got a lot of repair work,” Moses said.
Waiting for shelter
Parked in front of Express Pawn on U.S. 431, on a trailer, is a giant, white metal globe with a door on it. It looks like an alien spaceship, but it’s really a storm shelter, meant to be buried in someone’s yard.
Pawn shop owner Sonny Magouirk says it’s being sold by a Golden Springs resident who wanted to upgrade to a bigger shelter. And it’s a steal, he said, at $4,500. Most go for more like $6,000, he said.
After the storms, most victims pledged that they’d get a storm shelter for their next house. For many, that dream foundered on high prices and red tape.
After April 27, the federal government offered grants for 100 Calhoun County residents to build shelters, said Tammy Baines, spokeswoman for the Calhoun County Emergency Management Agency.
So far, only 76 people have filled out applications, Baines said.
But it’s more than a case of flagging resolve. The paperwork involved in the storm shelter grant may have been too slow and burdensome for some residents who are rebuilding now, Baines said. Before the storm, there were already more than 100 people on a waiting list for storm shelter assistance.
“We called some of the people on the list, and some of them had decided to just move on without a grant,” Baines said.
A clear warning
In the wake of the deadly Palm Sunday tornado of the 1990s, local residents campaigned for storm siren coverage for all of rural Alabama. Nobody should miss a storm warning, siren advocates said.
In 2011, the state may have faced a different problem – too many alerts. A report released in January by the Tornado Recovery Action Council noted that many Alabamians ignored the alerts because they were so used to hearing them, even when skies seemed clear.
This year, said Baines of the EMA, Calhoun County is implementing a “polygon” warning system that will activate sirens only in areas where there’s actually a weather warning. Before the polygon system came along, the EMA activated all county sirens wherever there was an alert anywhere in the county – so Oxford might be taking cover when a storm is headed to Piedmont.
“With the new system, if you hear a siren, you know you’re in danger and you need to seek shelter,” she said.
The second year
In the days after the storm, a woman in the Angel community found a collection of papers in her yard – including years-old receipts from a Tuscaloosa pharmacy.
It was one of dozens of incidents of personal or business paperwork turning up more than 100 miles from a destroyed house or business. And it highlighted one of the problems Rucker would like to work on in year two.
“We found out that there are a lot of things businesses could be doing better,” she said. “You need to have backups of important information, and not on the site of your business.”
Rucker said her organization and the EMA would spend the year holding classes to teach both business owners and the general public how to respond to the storms.
Among the lessons: Have a post-storm plan. Back up your paperwork. Get a generator and know how to use it.
There are also lessons for local governments, Rucker said. Cities and counties need to have cleanup contracts in place before disaster hits, she said, so recovery crews can start work immediately.
Calhoun County hired contractors within a week of the tornado’s strike to sweep its wreckage away.
State and federal officials told local government leaders that they could count on the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Alabama Emergency Management Agency to cover most of the cost of the cleanup. But the county is still waiting to be reimbursed for a portion of the cleanup even though about six months have passed since contractors finished clearing the landscape of debris.
Calhoun County is still waiting on $1.46 million from the federal government and $704,070 from the state. The county has received $4.5 million – roughly 75 percent – of the money it expects from the federal government.
The state has delivered no money to the county, officials said.
Rucker said it may be hard to get all the storm’s lessons to sink in. After all, Alabamians have had plenty of chances to get the tornado thing down pat.
There was the 1974 Super Outbreak that killed dozens of Alabamians and dropped a tornado in nearby Cherokee County. And a few years later, a funnel cloud that flattened the Sky City shopping center in Oxford. There was Palm Sunday 1994, and a twister in 2000 along a similar path that crushed a whole neighborhood near Piedmont.
And there was April 27, 2011.
Every time, people said they’d never get caught off guard again. But every time, someone did.
“Nobody ever thinks it’s going to happen to them,” Rucker said.
Tim Lockette, Patrick McCreless and Laura Johnson contributed to this report.