BIRMINGHAM, Ala. – (AP) – For Tom Sanders, it is the void left by the death of a cousin and the man’s wife, killed when a tornado mowed down in a placid valley in Alabama. For Markedia Wells, it’s the stolen innocence of his sons, who still get nervous every time it starts to rain. Darryl Colburn laments a lost way of life in his hometown, which was all but leveled in seconds.
Tornado waves hit the eastern United States for four days in the spring of 2011, killing more than 320 people in six states, including about 250 who died in Alabama on April 27 of the same year. A decade has passed, but time has not been able to erase the pain or replace the losses inflicted by the terrifying storms.
Houses and businesses were rebuilt and new trees grew; the empty seats around the tables were filled as babies were born and a new generation grew into adulthood. Yet there is still a sense of absence, a lingering sense of grief, in communities where so much has been lost so quickly.
“I don’t know if it’s an unforgettable day, but it’s a day you can’t forget,” said Colburn, the mayor of the small town of Hackleburg, where 18 died in an EF-5 twister with winds estimated at 210 mph (338 km / h). The same tornado struck nearby Phil Campbell, where a granite monument in the center of town honors 27 people killed.
The storms that started in east Texas escalated by the time the line reached the Mississippi, where a twist was so intense it swept across 0.61 feet of land. More than 60 tornadoes then struck Alabama, including one captured on video as it decimated the town of Tuscaloosa, and the storms continued as far north as New York State.
Another major tornado outbreak had killed more than three dozen people across the South about two weeks earlier, and a source of pain escalated further two weeks later, when an EF-5 tore Joplin apart, in Missouri. About 160 people died there.
The government funded the construction of hundreds of safe residential rooms and community storm shelters in the aftermath of the epidemic, still one of the deadliest in U.S. history, and meteorologists have improved forecasting systems. A study suggested better ways to communicate weather threats through live TV, including the constant presence of on-screen maps so viewers can understand where dangerous storms are.
But better preparedness for future disasters has done little to ease the pain of those still reliving the horror of past storms and the loss of loved ones.
In the Shoal Creek Valley of eastern Alabama, where 12 people have died, families still face unforgettable images and stories like that of Albert Sanders, 44, who died in the arms of his father, Buford Sanders, after being thrown by a twister in a field.
“He basically held her in his arms and then finally Albert told him he felt like he was about to die and (said): ‘I just want you to know that I am about to die. love it, daddy, ”said Albert’s cousin, Tom Sanders. “And then he died right after that.”
Tom Sanders’ house was badly damaged. Another relative, Jim Wilson, dug the graves of Albert and his wife, Angie Sanders, days later. A shiny black gravestone marks the spot in the cemetery of a country church. The couple’s three daughters, teenagers at the time, were injured but survived, Wilson said.
Markedia Wells, 39, and her two young sons survived a monster tornado that left a path of destruction through the heart of Tuscaloosa, but their home was warped from its foundations. She remembers shielding the boys’ eyes from the sight of a dead neighbor being swept away from the rubble of a house by volunteers who used a door as a stretcher.
Recently married, Wells lives with her husband and sons, now 14 and 16, in one of dozens of houses built by Habitat for Humanity volunteers in the same neighborhood. But dozens of empty lots and barren concrete slabs mark where homes once stood, and the boys are still worried about the weather, she said.
“I’ll be the first to admit the emotional loss in all of this,” she said. “We are always very nervous when it rains. When the meteorologist talks about bad weather or talks about a tornado that could happen, everything comes back flooding.
Located about 153 kilometers northwest of Birmingham, the town of Hackleburg has lost almost all of its 30 or so businesses, two schools, 180 houses, several churches, a doctor’s office, a pharmacy and most of the municipal buildings. because of the twister, Colburn said. , the mayor. He can still point to the underground shelter where he survived the storm with 11 others.
“We went out and wondered if we were the only ones who survived,” said Colburn, whose wife lost an uncle in the tornado.
Less than 60% of the town’s homes have been rebuilt, and the bare foundations are all that are left of the old brick storefronts that made up downtown Hackleburg. The city’s roughly 1,500 residents continue to struggle with a lack of housing and retail options, he said.
Schools have been rebuilt with a new town hall and a textile warehouse that has been leveled, and churches that have been destroyed have new buildings. But the old school buildings that graduates used to visit on their way home are long gone. The same goes for the shrines where generations have been baptized, married and praised, as well as almost any familiar sight that has made this place his home.
“The landscape of the city has been changed forever,” said Colburn.
The story is much the same about 113 kilometers from Cordoba, where four died. The entire city center was badly damaged by tornadoes, and the little that was left caught fire a few weeks later. Now 20-year-old Austin Thomas is skateboarding on the bare concrete foundation of a place he barely remembers from his childhood.
“A tornado ruined everything,” he said.