Sunday, April 11, 1999

One year later, Alabama tornado victims still rebuilding

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Around every corner in her hometown, Jill Savage finds another reason to weep.

        Sometimes it's the concrete slab that was the foundation to her grandmother's house. Sometimes it's the pile of rubble that used to be her son's school.

        It has been one year since a tornado devastated Jefferson County, Ala., and Mrs. Savage still sees the storm almost everywhere.

        “It's been a nightmare,” she said Saturday in a telephone interview. “A lot of people, everything they had is gone.”

        As her community continues its slow recovery, Mrs. Savage and her neighbors say their struggle to rebuild can be a lesson to those in Greater Cincinnati who now must do the same.

        Even more severe than the storm that struck the Tristate Friday, the Alabama twister killed 34 people and damaged or destroyed more than 1,000 homes on April 8, 1998.

        On Thursday — one day before Greater Cincinnati fell victim — residents in Alabama were marking the anniversary of the tornado with memorials and prayer services.

        For many, those services were a reminder of how much work still needs to be done.

        Hundreds of houses have not been rebuilt and many families have yet to return to the towns they have called home for most of their lives.

        “Everybody here knew somebody who was involved in the storm,” said Charlie Quackenbush, a plans officer for the Jefferson County Emergency Management Agency. “The community is still in shock over it.”

        Mrs. Savage said it's impossible to live and work around Birmingham without thinking about the storm every day. Even the trees, stripped of their limbs and bark, stand as reminders of the tornado.

        “It's really sad,” Mrs. Savage said. “You're going along and, instead of trees, all you're seeing are these sticks standing up.”

        While the landscape may recover in a decade or so, it will likely take longer for families to adjust to the loss of homes, keepsakes and — for some — loved ones.

        Although her family survived the storm, Mrs. Savage said she knew many of its victims. They included a neighbor, a former co-worker and her second-grade teacher.

        “I grew up there. I lived there my whole life,” Mrs. Savage said of Hueytown, Ala. “I knew everybody.”

        To cope with the loss, many residents have turned to their churches, counseling programs and one another.

        “After this storm, people learned who their neighbors were again,” said the Rev. Mike Lansford, pastor at Edgewater Baptist Church. “They pulled together and helped one another.”

        Rev. Lansford, whose church was leveled, has been leading his flock from a mobile chapel parked near the site of the original building.

        With the help of church members and volunteers, he expects to spend the summer supervising the church's reconstruction.

        Like most property owners, the members will have to pay for a lot of the work because insurance covered only about 50 percent.

        Eddie Johnson faced the same problem when he began rebuilding his own home north of Birmingham. Undaunted, he didn't wait around to find out how much help he would get.

        “I knew the night it happened that I'd be staying,” said Mr. Johnson, an assistant build ing inspector in Birmingham. “All the people around here are my family.”

        So the next morning, armed with his tools and a power saw, Mr. Johnson began to put his house back together.

        “I wanted to set an example for the community,” he said. “I wanted them to do it, too.”

        So far, he said, about half of them have done the same. He's confident more will follow.

        The Rev. Lansford also says the community will one day recover, even if it's never quite the same.

        “It's like a wound. It'll heal up, but it'll leave a scar,” he said. “It's something people won't ever forget.”

        He holds out hope that the storm's most lasting legacy will be the goodwill it inspired among its survivors.

        Similar sentiments have been expressed for the past year on an Internet site dedicated to storm victims. A message posted Thursday urged survivors to learn from their experiences.

        “Yes, life goes on, but you appreciate the small things much more,” the message read. “Life is precious. You treat it with more value, and love with a better quality.”



Pinpointing the damage in the Tristate
Homeowners sort out emotions, scattered memories
Where to donate, where to get help
Orphaned dog has broken pelvis, heart
Devoted pair died together
'When God calls, we must go'
Sirens not designed to penetrate buildings
Did you hear the sirens?
New home, owners spared
Utility crews, municipal workers out in force
Volunteers offer goods, hands, time
Mother Nature's worst brings out the best in human nature
Church members shed tears, give thanks
Hoosiers pitch in to help neighbors
Insurance adjusters bring checks, reassuring words
Warren County took blow, too
- One year later, Alabama tornado victims still rebuilding