Last April’s record-setting cluster of 62 tornadoes struck the state of Alabama with such deadly force that it caused a shift in the very tone and grammar of weather warnings.
This April 13, as a big storm moved into the Plains states, the National Weather Service sent out an early, unusually strong warning, saying the storm could be a “high-end, life-threatening event.”
And the NWS is testing other such phrases, according to Patrik Jonsson of the Christian Science Monitor, including “mass devastation,” “catastrophic” and “unsurvivable.”
This “alarmism,” Jonsson says, is an attempt to react to the horrible death toll in Alabama and other states and to “break through a ‘cry wolf’ immunity that many Americans exhibit toward tornado warnings – even sirens.”
It’s doubtful that anyone in Alabama could feel immune from extreme weather after what we experienced in April 2011, including the deaths of almost 250 people. This is especially true since we continue to receive blunt reminders of nature’s power.
There was the rare, deadly winter tornado that hit Birmingham, including Clay, Pinson and Center Point, on January 23. Two people were killed and about 100 hurt, and nearly 200 homes were destroyed in Jefferson County.
There were the tornadoes that hit north Alabama in early March, part of a series of storms that tore across 10 states in the South and Midwest, killing more than 30 people, including one in Alabama.
And it would be almost impossible for an Alabamian to not feel a sick, familiar shudder when reading reports or seeing images of the horrible scenes that played out in Indiana during that March outbreak.
We recognized, for example, the sense of total devastation.
Marysville, Ind., a hamlet made up of a few dozen homes, was all but wiped away, a reminder of what happened to such small Alabama communities as Phil Campbell and Hackleburg.
We remembered how quickly a killer storm can strike.
In the small town of Chelsea, Ind., the bodies of a 4-year-old boy and his great-grandparents were found on the ground 50 feet from where the couple’s home had been blown off its foundation and itself thrown 100 feet.
“All of this happened in less than 30 seconds,” volunteer firefighter Cory Thomas told USA Today.
We recognize it all and are reminded of how quickly we could lose everything – our homes, our lives, our families – and how arbitrary and capricious tornadoes seem to be.
As a volunteer in the storm-blasted Clay subdivision of Georgebrook told Weld a few days after the January 23 storm, as she pondered why a 16-year-old Clay teenager and a man in Oak Grove had to be killed by the storm, “Why them? Why just them?”
It is, of course, extremely difficult to make sense of the tornadoes, at least emotionally or existentially.
Officials and volunteers can learn to improve their response to such events.
Scientists can learn more about how storms develop and how they behave.
We can amass gigabytes of data about the storms – where they started, the paths they took.
But it is far easier to find a storm’s origin or track its path than to measure its emotional and psychological effects or to understand the ways we all have been affected.
This is especially true of the thousands of Alabamians who lost a loved one, or lost a home, or witnessed horrible scenes of destruction while working as a volunteer.
Some perhaps only narrowly avoided death or injury themselves and can never shake the sense of fear and fragility they felt that April day.
And we are once again face to face with the beast.
On Friday, April 27, we mark the first anniversary of our deadly storms.
It is a time to remember the dead and to celebrate the heroism and simple persistence of the living, especially the thousands who volunteered, and continue to volunteer, in an ongoing state recovery.
It’s also time to deal with the feelings, even outright trauma, that the storm inspired.
For those who really need someone to talk to, the Alabama Department of Mental Health wants to remind Alabamians that the Project Rebound free counseling program is available at (800) 639-7326 or at www.projectrebound.org.
And on April 27 and through the weekend, there are ample opportunities for all of us to get out and be with other people who are feeling some of the same things that we are.
There will be anniversary concerts and memorial services. There will be volunteer opportunities. A few of these are listed at the end of this post.
These events are a chance to witness the public manifestation of a profound and important civic moment.
It’s a chance to celebrate what seems to be a genuine sense of community that grew out of the storms, with people working across lines or race and class to dig out from under the rubble, and deliver food and water to those who needed it or to use Twitter and Facebook to share information and coordinate volunteer efforts.
They are a chance to see the progress that has been made in rebuilding, including the new homes being built in Pratt City and other areas.
The volunteer parties are a chance to take part, even in some small way, in the state’s recovery, in your community’s recovery – and perhaps even in your own.
Days of Remembrance
Memorials and other events on the anniversary of the April 2011 storms
Friday, April 27
State prayer service. Alabama State Capitol, 600 Dexter Avenue, Montgomery. A prayer service will be held on the steps of the capitol at 9 a.m. Gov. Robert Bentley will proclaim April 27 a “Day of Remembrance” and call for a statewide moment of silence at 4:27 p.m. to honor the memory of those who were killed.
Rock the South Concert. Heritage Park, 1705 Lee Ave. SW, Cullman. This memorial concert will feature country stars Dierks Bentley and Kellie Pickler. Gates open at 3 p.m.; show ends at 11 p.m. For tickets and other information, go to http://rockthesouth.net.
City of Birmingham memorial service. Dugan and Hibernian Streets, Pratt City. The city will remember the victims of the April 27 tornadoes with a memorial service in hard-hit Pratt City. The event will begin at 5 p.m. and include appearances by American Idol winner Ruben Studdard. Attendees are encouraged to bring canned goods.
City of Tuscaloosa memorial service. University of Alabama, Coleman Coliseum, 323 Paul W. Bryant Drive. This one-hour event will begin at 5 p.m. and feature presentations from, among other officials, Tuscaloosa Mayor Walt Maddox. Admission is free. The service will include a “moment of reflection” at 5:13 p.m., the minute the EF4 tornado crossed the city limit and began its 5.9-mile path across the city. The storm killed 53 people in the area, and each of the victims will be recognized.
“God of This City: A Service of Commemoration and Celebration.” First Baptist Church of Pleasant Grove, 724 Fourth St. First Baptist will host this community service at 7 p.m. The Pleasant Grove High School band and choir will perform. There will be video testimonies from Pleasant Grove residents. For more, call (205) 744-7061 or visit www.fbcpg.org.
Saturday, April 28
Volunteer work day. Dugan Ave. and Hibernian Street, Pratt City. Gov. Robert Bentley has proclaimed April 28 as a “Day of Service,” and there will be several volunteer opportunities in Pratt City. Christian Service Mission is sponsoring a work day from 9 a.m.-1 p.m. Volunteers will, among other tasks, help clean debris and do landscaping. For information, call (205) 252-9906 or visit http://csmission.org.
Legends of the Iron Bowl Run for Recovery 5K. Pratt City Library, 1100 Hibernian St. (corner of Hibernian Street and Dugan Avenue). Join former Auburn and Alabama football players, including Tide star and former Birmingham Steeldogs coach Bobby Humphrey, and run to raise awareness and money to help rebuild the Pratt City Library, in the aftermath of the April 2011 tornado. 8 a.m. 5K Run/Walk, $25; 1K Fun Run/Walk, $10. www.active.com.
Saturday promises to be a busy day in Pratt City, with other events including the groundbreaking for a senior living facility and the unveiling of renovation plans for Pratt City Library.
Bo Bikes Bama. Various locations. Saturday will be the final day of a bike ride by former Auburn University Heisman Trophy winner Bo Jackson designed to raise $1 million for the Governor’s Emergency Relief Fund. Jackson is scheduled to ride from April 24-April 28. He will follow the paths of some of the April storms and is expected to cover about 50 miles per day. For a $200 tax-deductible donation, individuals can sign up for one of the stages. To learn more or make a donation, go to www.bobikesbama.com.
Sunday, April 29
Fashion Rocks for Tornado Relief. Courtyard behind Hotel Highland, 1023 20th St. South, Five Points South. Mahogany and Pink, a Birmingham fashion consulting firm, will host its annual benefit fashion show for Habitat for Humanity, with the money raised this year helping people affected by the 2011 storms. 6 p.m. Tickets $25 at the door; $20 in advance. For information, visit http://mahoganyandpink.com/
“The Tornadoes of April 27th: Looking Back — Moving Forward.” McWane Science Center, 200 19th St. North. The exhibit shares personal stories from those who experienced the devastation of the storms, while emphasizing the importance of tornado preparedness and explaining the science behind tornadoes. To promote storm preparedness, the exhibit includes a disaster kiosk that discusses ways to prepare for hurricanes, tornadoes, floods and severe winter weather. The exhibit will remain at the museum through the summer. Admission is included in regular center admission. Learn more at http://www.mcwane.org.
“Tornadoes.” Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts. One Museum Drive,Montgomery. This exhibit is said to be a visual memorial for those killed last April. The artists featured include two from Tuscaloosa, Sumerlin Brandon and Caleb O’Connor, as well as a few from out of state. According to the museum’s web site, the artists “demonstrate the awe-inspiring power of the beautiful spinning funnels of air while exploring the destruction and tragedy they leave in their wake.” Admission is free. Through June 3. For details, call (334) 240-4333 or visit www.mmfa.org.
Jesse Chambers is a contributing editor at Weld for Birmingham and the editor of Weld Local. Send your feedback to email@example.com.