Death, destruction recounted at Ala. anniversary
EDITOR'S NOTE: Alabama Baptists remember the death and destruction wrought by more than 60 tornadoes across the state a year ago today.
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (BP) -- History marks those days. Dec. 7, 1941. Sept. 11, 2001. When those days are mentioned, our minds instantly go back to where we were and how we felt in those moments that followed the inconceivable.
The National Weather Service estimated that more than 60 tornadoes touched down on what it called a "tragically historic" day in Alabama. The Alabama Emergency Management Agency called the storms "one of the worst natural disasters in state history."
Several tornadoes took long, wide tracks through the state, killing and injuring hundreds of people and destroying millions of dollars in property. Other tornadoes stayed on the ground for shorter distances but caused death and destruction just the same.
By the end of that day, 272 people were dead in Alabama. All told, the April 25–28 tornado outbreak killed 321 people in six southern states. Whole Alabama neighborhoods were reduced to rubble. Thousands of homes and churches in 42 of the state's 67 counties were destroyed or damaged.
"It was an awful, terrible thing," said Joe Bob Mizzell, director of the office of Christian ethics at the Alabama Baptist State Board of Missions.
One of the strongest tornadoes initially touched down southwest of Hamilton in Marion County around 3 p.m. According to NWS estimates, the EF5 tornado lasted approximately two hours and cut a path of destruction 107 miles long, causing catastrophic damage to Hackleburg in Marion County, Phil Campbell and Oak Grove in Franklin County, Hillsboro and Mount Hope in Lawrence County, Tanner in Limestone County and Harvest, Toney and Hazel Green in Madison County.
The tornado reached maximum wind speeds of 210 mph and a maximum path width of 1.25 miles. More than 100 injuries and 18 fatalities resulted, and local pastors estimated that in Phil Campbell and Hackleburg, at least 50 percent of the towns' populations were displaced.
Two churches, Mountain View Baptist Church in Phil Campbell and Emmanuel Baptist Church in Hackleburg, were destroyed. First Baptist Church in Phil Campbell suffered minor structural damage to its main building. First Baptist Church in Hackleburg received only minor damage as well.
Less than two hours later, an EF4 tornado initially touched down in rural northern Greene County. The NWS estimated that it stayed on the ground for more than an hour, cutting a path of damage nearly 81 miles long as it moved northeast through southern Tuscaloosa and western Jefferson Counties. When the tornado crossed Interstate 65, NWS meteorologists estimated it was 1.5 miles wide and packing 190-mph winds.
In the massive tornado's wake, 64 people were dead and more than 1,500 were injured.
In Tuscaloosa, the tornado's destruction caused a massive power outage and left thousands homeless and many dead, including six students from the University of Alabama, two from Shelton State Community College and one from Stillman College.
The tornado hit densely populated neighborhoods, snaking around the university, a hospital and a high school. At least six of Tuscaloosa Baptist Association's 80-plus churches were heavily damaged.
At Hopewell Baptist Church in Tuscaloosa, the tornado flipped a few shingles from the roof but otherwise bypassed the imposing brick buildings and instead tore into the surrounding neighborhood.
Only 16 blocks away, at Alberta Baptist Church in Tuscaloosa, winds blew the steeple, roof and front wall onto the steps, leaving mounds of insulation and splintered wood hanging from a huge opening in the newly renovated sanctuary's ceiling. The educational space also was heavily damaged.
Pilgrim Rest Baptist Church in Tuscaloosa also suffered extensive damage, as did Forest Lake Baptist Church in Tuscaloosa. Forest Lake Baptist received structural damage when it was lifted off its foundation. The neighborhood surrounding it was devastated.
The sanctuary of Rosedale Baptist Church in Tuscaloosa had quite a bit of damage, but the congregation was able to meet in the fellowship hall for services. New Eastern Hills Baptist Church in Tuscaloosa had a large hole in the wall, roof damage and windows blown out.
In Jefferson County, the large white steeple that towered atop First Baptist Church in Fultondale was found on its side across the street in a neighbor's front yard. Glass, twisted metal from the church's roof and other debris were strewn across the parking lot. Along the church's street, entire neighborhoods were destroyed and hardly a tree was left standing.
At First Baptist Church in Pleasant Grove, the tornado toppled the steeple, blew shingles away and tore a hole through the roof of one of the children's buildings.
The same supercell storm that ripped through Tuscaloosa, Fultondale and Pleasant Grove, demolishing homes and leaving a trail of dead and missing, destroyed Bethel Baptist Church in Pratt City. Winds of at least 140 mph tore the roof off the gymnasium and sanctuary and threw one church van into a ravine. The church's day care and offices also were demolished.
In Concord, Concord Highland Baptist Church was in the tornado's path and suffered extensive damage. The church, which was hit by an EF5 tornado in 1998, sustained extensive damage to the sanctuary roof and lost its steeple. The fellowship building and pastorium were destroyed.
Earlier that morning, Tannehill Valley Baptist Church in McCalla was damaged by straight-line winds registering more than 70 mph. The steeple was knocked off the roof, and as it fell, it cut into a three-inch water line, causing major damage to the music library, three nursery rooms, two Sunday School rooms and part of the sanctuary.
That evening, an EF5 tornado devastated Shiloh, Rainsville and the extreme southeastern portions of Sylvania and Henagar. Ider in DeKalb County and Dutton, Pisgah and Flat Rock in Jackson County also sustained incredible damage as EF2 and EF4 tornadoes pushed through in the afternoon and evening hours.
According to the weather service, the EF4 tornado that affected Pisgah and the Flat Rock area packed maximum winds near 190 mph. The path of destruction was 38 miles long. More than 300 homes were destroyed and another 176 were damaged. Eleven people died in Jackson and DeKalb counties.
Rainsville was the hardest hit in DeKalb County. The home of Mark Whittaker, minister of music and youth at First Baptist Church in Rainsville, was one of hundreds of structures destroyed or badly damaged as a tornado cut a half-mile wide swath of destruction through the area. The home of deacon Eddie Garrett and his wife Daphne received significant damage as well.
Mountain View Baptist Church in Sylvania was destroyed. Twenty miles north in Valley Head, a tornado blew away Stamp Baptist Church's fellowship hall.
In Jackson County, 115 homes were destroyed and 200 more were damaged. At least eight people died. Three of the students killed in Tuscaloosa were from the area, according to David Patty, director of missions for Sand Mountain Baptist Association.
In Cullman County, an EF4 tornado caused extensive damage to buildings in downtown Cullman and Fairview. The tornado then tracked to the northeast, producing significant damage in the Ruth and Oak Grove communities in Marshall County. Two people died in Cullman County, and at least five died in Marshall County.
East Side Baptist Church in Cullman was the only East Cullman Baptist Association church with damage. Much of the church was reduced to rubble when the tornado bulldozed through the city. The entire sanctuary was destroyed, and the Sunday School area and gymnasium were damaged. It was the second time pastor Ken Allen found himself ministering to a congregation struck by disaster. Allen was pastor of Concord Highland Baptist when it was hit by an EF5 tornado in 1998.
First Baptist Church in Cullman in West Cullman Baptist Association received damage from the tornado that hit downtown Cullman as well. The force of the tornado tore a large hole in the gymnasium roof, lifted one-third of the sanctuary roof off and destroyed a large section of the Sunday School and children's area. The church's 60-year-old stained glass windows were blown into the sanctuary, leaving a mangled mess of window leading on the floor.
In Guntersville, the Marshall Baptist Retreat Center, Haney's Chapel Baptist Church and Victory Baptist Church sustained significant damage. Three other churches received some damage, as did nearly 900 homes in Marshall County.
In Madison County, the hardest hit area was Harvest, which is northwest of Huntsville. Entire subdivisions were destroyed and 10 people were killed.
The Harvest Youth Club, where many had taken shelter from the storm, was relatively unscathed, though the playground outside was destroyed. Everything within a half-mile of the youth club was destroyed. Forty houses in the neighborhood were destroyed, and another 80 were badly damaged.
In St. Clair County, 11 people died in the Shoal Creek Valley area near Ashville and Ragland. Two churches in St. Clair Baptist Association sustained significant damage during the evening line of storms: Greensport Baptist Church and Bethany Baptist Church, both located in the Shoal Creek Valley. Three of the 11 people who died in Shoal Creek Valley had ties to Greensport Baptist.
An EF4 tornado blew the roof off Greensport and caused its seven-year-old fellowship hall to cave in. A drop-off area that once graced the front of the building was blown behind the church, and the steeple was knocked off the roof.
At Bethany Baptist, huge trees fell onto the sanctuary and educational building.
Not too far away, First Baptist Church in Moody also suffered damage. The steeple that sat atop the front of the sanctuary was blown into a back parking lot. The church's awnings and part of the roof also were blown away.
To the northeast, Cherokee County was hit more than once that day, and as a result, 35–40 homes were damaged and another 35–40 were destroyed. Four churches in Cherokee Baptist Association sustained damage: New Bethel Baptist, Tates Chapel Baptist and Pilgrim Rest Baptist, all in Centre, and Pisgah Baptist in Piedmont.
The major portion of New Bethel's roof was blown off by straight-line winds in the early morning. Tates Chapel had minor siding damage, and playground equipment was blown over.
The tornado lifted Pilgrim Rest's sanctuary off its foundation and set it down again.
Two large trees fell on Pisgah's building, damaging the roof, ceiling tiles, walls and floor joists. It suffered an estimated $60,000 to $70,000 in damage extending all the way to the basement. North of Piedmont, the Goshen community was ravaged by a tornado that touched down less than two miles from the site of a deadly twister on Palm Sunday in 1993 that killed 20 worshipers at Goshen United Methodist Church. On April 27, an EF4 tornado wiped out numerous homes and buildings in the area but there were no fatalities.
Further south, in Calhoun County, the area of destruction was 30 miles long and five miles wide in some places. Ohatchee, Piedmont, Webster's Chapel and Wellington were especially hard hit. The county was hit by the morning line of storms and then received more extensive damage when more storms passed through in the afternoon.
At least nine people died, and 284 homes and buildings were destroyed. Another 120 sustained major damage, requiring them to be demolished. More than 300 other homes and buildings were damaged or affected by the storms.
Several churches in Calhoun Baptist Association were hit, including Mamre Baptist Church and First Baptist Church in Wellington.
In Tallapoosa County, an evening storm centered its destructive forces around Lake Martin and Dadeville. At least one person died. Properties in neighboring Chambers County were damaged.
In Elmore County, an EF4 tornado obliterated the 115-year-old Mount Hebron East Baptist Church in Eclectic.
Choctaw County in south Alabama also took a direct hit. More than 200 homes were destroyed or received significant damage. At least seven people in Hale and Bibb Counties lost their lives.
In Bibb Baptist Association, Eoline Baptist Church was damaged. A few days earlier, on April 15, a tornado following almost the same path felled trees and damaged a cemetery in Bibb County. Also damaged in the state were two churches. The April 15 tornadoes claimed seven lives in the state.
Carrie Brown McWhorter is a correspondent for The Alabama Baptist (www.thealabamabaptist.org), newsjournal of the Alabama Baptist Convention.