He used to own a four-bedroom house, on a wooded hillside. Out back, there were about a dozen old cars that Vaughn, a retired defense worker, could tinker with at will.
That was before the April 27 tornado.
Today, Vaughn lives in a single-wide mobile home in a bare spot among the broken, fire-blackened trees. Behind the house is his new workshop, built out of Maersk shipping containers. He sold most of his old cars to pay for the roof. He’s starting again, and he doesn’t expect he’ll ever get back to what he had before.
“I’m just going to stay in what I’ve got,” said Vaughn, who has lived here 30 years and says he’s too old for a new house. “I’ve come out better than some people.”
He has indeed. When twisters cut a path across the state on April 27 — the largest tornado outbreak in U.S. history — nine Calhoun County residents lost their lives, dozens were injured and hundreds of homes were wrecked.
But two months on, most people in the storm zone have come out about like Vaughn.
Some live pioneer-style, in fresh, modest trailers surrounded with yards of red dirt scraped into swirls like a Zen garden. Here and there, large houses are going up with startling speed, an odd icon of cul-de-sac life among forests of broken and blackened trees.
At first glance, not much has changed since the days immediately following the storm.
Back then, state troopers stood guard at every intersection, and National Guardsmen searched house-to-house for survivors. Now the occasional deputy cruises slowly down the winding roads, staring down potential sightseers or looters.
Back then, dead power lines and downed trees clogged the roads, no one could call in or call out, and news often traveled by word-of-mouth. Now there are mailboxes again, and clear streets, and the hum of air conditioners.
Back then, people saw their houses transformed into piles of junk by the roadside. Whole forests of trees lay bent sideways or stood snapped in half. Inside the foliage, a million personal items — underwear, necklaces, pillowcases, neckties — were tangled like gum in a child’s hair.
Now, the downed foliage has turned brown. In some places, piles of garbage have been trucked away. In Read’s Mill, much of the junk is still there.
Statewide, officials say, about 70 percent of the garbage is gone. Calhoun County’s figures closely match that, with the county’s contractor reporting that 270,000 cubic yards of the roughly 350,000 cubic yards of debris have been cleaned up.
“An astounding 10 million cubic yards was left behind after the devastating tornadoes and storm that struck Alabama in April,” said Bill Watrel, a division supervisor with FEMA. “That’s enough debris to fill an equivalent of 67,000 18-wheelers. If those trucks were lined up one behind another, they would extend all the way from Mobile to Nashville and halfway back again.”
But to many local residents, only one truck matters — the one that comes to take the house debris from the edge of their yard. In some places, those trucks didn’t begin appearing until last week. Local officials say it took that long to get state permission to pick up trash in the state right of way. And they say the process was confounded by their effort to start the cleanup of Lake Neely Henry, one of the area’s biggest summer attractions. Entire mobile homes were shoved into the water by the storm, and still lurk there.
Last month, state officials told The Star the surface of Neely Henry would be cleared in time for the Independence Day weekend, a popular weekend for boating.
Cleanup in Neely Henry began just a week ago. At a press conference Thursday, state officials offered conflicting estimates on whether the deadline would be met. It could take a month, they said. Lake Martin, the more-damaged lake near Alexander City, came first, they said.
State and federal responses to the storm have gotten mixed reviews from local residents. Even people living in FEMA trailers say they preferred working with local churches, which arrived faster, didn’t need to see an ID, and never routed anyone to voicemail.
FEMA’s aid center in Webster’s Chapel closed just before Father’s Day. Officials cited a lack of business there. But local organizations are still operating out of the once-bustling relief center across the street from the Webster’s Chapel Fire Department. With pallets of water bottles and a makeshift, tarp-covered office near a big, striped pavilion, the relief center looks like a cross between a circus and a military tent city.
Sylvia Benevides, of the Webster’s Chapel Tornado Relief Organization, greets visitors with stories of those who still need help.
Hailey and Chris Keener used all their insurance money to buy a double-wide to replace their 100-year-old house, blown away in the storm. Now they need help replacing everything else.
Harry Hardy has a family of 13 living in a 14-by-16 FEMA trailer and a donated camper. All his paperwork blew away in the storm, including the deed to his home and FEMA won’t accept a bill of sale as proof of ownership.
Page Goodman’s pre-teen son has autism. Her family has been renting a house outside the area because it’s too disturbing for her son to return to the now-unfamiliar landscape of his former neighborhood.
Benevides said most people are in permanent homes, at least. Perhaps 10 or 12 are still in limbo, uninsured and unable to buy a house with the amount of FEMA aid they’ve been given.
Seven years, four days
With tall, new houses going up next to gutted trailers, it’s hard not to notice that there are haves and have-nots in the storm zone. And it’s hard not to notice how randomly the good luck is distributed.
James “Shrek” Wise spent seven years working on his house on Cochran Springs Road. The tornado tore it apart in a matter of seconds. Three weeks later his friends and co-workers rebuilt it in four days.
It helps to have handy friends: Wise works for Webb Concrete and Building Materials.
“Some labor I paid for, but no where near what I should have,” he said.
The house he had worked on for so many years had a second story and was a little bigger than the one he hopes to move into soon, but Wise is thankful just to have a place to live. He said many of his neighbors don’t understand how he could come back so fast. Since he wasn’t insured, Wise said he didn’t have to wait on a settlement. He’s received a lot of help from the community and his employer.
Construction businesses such as Webb Concrete have also been among the lucky. Owner Phil Webb said business has picked up for most builders since the disaster.
“Repairs and remodels seem to be under way in a lot of areas,” he said. “These builders who haven’t had anything to do for a year or two are starting to get work.”
But residents’ reduced expectations for the future may be cutting into some of the expected construction boost.
Home Builders Association president Clyde Huckeba said he has only seen requests for small repairs such as roof damage. He added that many people are putting mobile homes where their houses once stood. According to Huckeba, many with storm damage were underinsured or had no replacement-cost insurance.
“People can buy a double wide and a storm shelter for half what it cost to rebuild a house,” he explained.
‘All anyone wants’
That’s one thing still on Wise’s wish list — a storm-safe area in his new house.
“All anyone wants is a storm shelter or a poured cement basement,” he said.
People in the storm zone have learned to make do without electricity, water and air conditioning. But they still speak wistfully of the possibility of building a storm shelter, particularly after last week, when two severe thunderstorms blew through the area — storms eerily similar to the squalls that preceded the April 27 tornado.
Asked if she was frightened by the storms, Elsie Collins replied with an emphatic “Yes!” Collins, who lives with her daughter across the street from her now-ruined home, said last week’s downpours sent her to her “storm house” — a cinderblock-lined mound that looks like a Cold War bomb shelter. It was built by a septic tank company and she doubts it’s even legal, but she said she doesn’t care.
In the days after the storm, state and FEMA officials didn’t have a lot of good news for people hoping for assistance in building shelters. Federal shelter programs were tapped out; FEMA officials were on hand at local hardware stores, offering advice to people who wanted to build one. There was talk of “community shelters” available to all, but no one seemed to be clear on where they were.
At a conference earlier this month, Gov. Robert Bentley announced that he’d like to require trailer parks to have storm shelters — either through legislation or by executive order. It’s not clear how that would be implemented. Spokespersons for the governor didn’t return The Star’s calls about the issue.
For some, a shelter is a pipe dream — and so is returning to the lifestyle they knew before.
Before the storm, James R. “Jim Ed” Brown and Diane Smith owned a triple-wide, an 80-by-42 monster of a mobile home. There was a lake in the back, and cool trees to shade Brown as he worked on his two classic 1970s pickup trucks.
Last week, they got their new house, a 28-by-42 trailer crammed with furniture and clothes donated by local churches.
They lost literally everything in the storm. The tornado obliterated their old house and flung Brown 200 feet, ripping the clothes off his back. Five days later he owned nothing but five broken ribs, the surgical staples in his head and a hospital bill. Since then they’ve found a couple of dolls from Smith’s collection, with dented heads and dirty faces.
“I do have an old pair of work britches in that tree up there,” Brown said, pointing to one of the three trees left standing. “I’d have to cut the tree down to get them.”
The new house is less than half the size of the old one — but Brown and Smith have no plans to expand. Like many people here, they had no insurance, and this was the best their savings and government aid could provide.
At least they’re staying.
“From here down to the end of the road, I don’t think there’s anybody that’s coming back,” he said.
The neighboring lots are scraped clean, each of them a driveway to nowhere. Except for the pointy shards of pine trees, it looks like a subdivision under construction, not a community on the cusp of vanishing.
The way home
Henry Douthit is more optimistic than most.
He lost his house on April 27. His sister-in-law, Ruby Douthit, was killed. Gilbert’s Ferry Road was once lined with the homes of Douthit’s siblings and cousins; now it’s mostly empty lots.
In the days after the storm, Douthit roamed the storm zone, spreading news from neighbor to neighbor, asking folks if they’d seen the horse that once lived in the pasture in front of his house.
Douthit didn’t have insurance. A federal food aid program turned him down, even though he’d lost everything. But former co-workers at Goodyear, where Douthit spent decades building tires, stepped in and helped him clean up. They pestered federal officials, Douthit said, until FEMA gave him a trailer.
“First in the county,” Douthit said proudly. “Got it a month ago.”
In front of his trailer, Douthit’s yard is green and lush. He’s amazed at how the grass has come back, covering the places where his relatives’ homes once stood.
“Just look at that,” he said, indicating the now-treeless hills. “It’s like a picture from a biblical story.”
Douthit says he’ll be in the trailer only 18 months: He’s planning to dig into his savings and start a new house, better than before.
Not too long ago, someone found Douthit’s horse, grazing in a pasture down the road.
He thinks the animal just didn’t know how to find his way home after the storm. Douthit has the same problem, sometimes.
“It just doesn’t look the same,” he said. “It never will look the same.”
Reporting by Tim Lockette, Alison Smith, Blair Klayko, Allyson Angle and Brooke Carbo