Friday, April 27, marked the first anniversary of tornadoes that killed nearly 250 people in Alabama and left lasting marks on the state’s physical and psychic landscapes.
This past weekend featured numerous memorial services and other events in Alabama, including several in Birmingham.
Alabama is a deeply religious place, and churches in the state have been praised for their contributions to storm relief efforts, so it isn’t surprising God played a key role in these commemorations.
It seems that God is rarely if ever assigned the blame for such natural disasters as the April 2011 tornadoes, at least among people of faith.
God is, however, widely praised for the seemingly miraculous ways in which some people in the path of the storms survived.
He also receives tribute for the way in which faith has helped survivors find balm for their wounds, physical and otherwise, in the disaster’s bitter aftermath.
Attendees at the commemorations last weekend also mourned their dead; sought to comfort the living, including the families of those who lost their lives; praised first responders and volunteers; and celebrated the progress communities have made in recovery.
The Lord stands by you
The Jefferson County community of Pleasant Grove was hit hard in the April 2011 tornadoes, with 12 people dying.
Last Friday, several hundred residents gathered at First Baptist Church of Pleasant Grove (FBCPG) for a memorial service, “God of This City: A Service of Commemoration and Celebration.”
They came to remember the dead but also to celebrate their recovery.
According to FBCPG senior pastor Daven Watkins, the evening’s first speaker, “We will remember, but we are also going to celebrate. Is there anyone who can testify that God is good?”
This remark drew standing applause from the attendees.
The event was well-paced and skillfully mounted, and featured the 50 or so members of the Pleasant Grove High School (PGHS) Band.
Impressive in their black and purple uniforms, the band — under the direction of Chuck Eady –opened the program with a dramatic modern orchestral piece called “Regenesis.”
Also performing during the evening were the PGHS Chorale and a community choir of about 100 members.
Pastor Jerry Sherrell of Cottage Hill Baptist Church read the names of the 12 people from Pleasant Grove – white, black, male, female, young and old – who died in the storm.
After each name, a bell was rung a single time, and each person’s picture was shown on two large video screens for about 10 seconds.
All 12 names were then shown on the video screens as bagpiper Jeff Jones played “Amazing Grace.”
The event featured a video titled “Recovering Hope,” which featured personal stories of storm survivors and encouraged attendees to seek comfort in their faith. Inspirational phrases such as “The Lord stands by you” and “My help comes from the Lord” appeared onscreen throughout the video.
Brasseale thanked first responders, including several in attendance. He mentioned plans to build a memorial park about a block from the church.
The mayor also recognized attendees who had lost loved ones. “For some of us, maybe tonight will bring us a little closure, and we can get back to normalcy,” he said.
Brasseale praised the churches that were such a big part of recovery efforts. “I wouldn’t want to go through this without churches,” he said. “Churches in Pleasant Grove and surrounding areas provided everything. And prayers. People say we’re praying for you, and we feel those prayers.”
Chris Womack of CBS-42 TV covered the unveiling of a storm monument at the Pleasant Grove city hall last week.
From chaos to peace
The city of Birmingham held a memorial service Friday afternoon, April 27, at 5 p.m. at the intersection of Dugan and Hibernian streets.
The Pratt City Library located at that intersection was nearly destroyed by the tornado.
On Saturday, April 28, the neighborhood was filled with people, and a festive atmosphere prevailed.
Bobby Humphrey, 1980s-era Alabama Crimson Tide football star and former coach of the Birmingham Steeldogs, hosted a 5K run and a one-mile fun run, both designed to raise money to help rebuild the library.
The finish lines for both runs were located at the intersection of Dugan and Hibernian, also the location of a new park and gazebo being constructed in part by volunteers recruited by Birmingham non-profit Christian Service Mission (CSM).
CSM has been active in Pratt City since the early days of the recovery, according to the group’s Gil Franks, who was setting up to cook hamburgers on a large grill on Dugan Avenue as participants in the one-mile fun run, including children, ran past him on their way to the finish line.
“My first visit to Pratt City was a year ago today with a truckload of water to start recovery, and we’ve been out here for a year rebuilding houses,” Franks told Weld Local. “We’ve got two houses that we’re dedicating Sunday. We’re groundbreaking a third house Sunday. We’ve restored eight houses out here in the past year.”
CSM expected a maximum of about 300 volunteers on Saturday, according to Franks.
Franks said that the commemorative activities were a welcome contrast to the events of last April in the same area.
It was striking, Franks said, “to be here this morning and see the peace that’s here today compared to the chaos that was here a year ago this morning.”
He added, “A year ago there were people walking around with shock on their faces. The residents were still in the community trying to understand what they were going to do next, and today we’re looking at people running up and down the street, and they’re laughing and smiling. And it’s amazing how quickly a community can recover.”
CSM has facilitated about 20,000 volunteers in Pratt City over the last year, including many from other states, according to Franks.
“To see the goodness that people have shown [coming] from all over the country to come spend a week out here helping people they don’t know, it restores your faith that there is a lot of good in a lot of people,” he said.
“We’ve had groups from Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Iowa, Indiana, Texas, Louisiana,” Franks said. “We’ve had, in fact, we had a group from Connecticut painting one of those houses. A group from Massachusetts was here three weeks ago, so these people have come in to help. They don’t know the people here, but they just want to come help people. Amish groups from Pennsylvania have been here for a year working.”
Other events scheduled for the weekend in Pratt City included the groundbreaking for a senior living facility, the unveiling of renovation plans for the library and the beginning of a community garden.
Alex Corddry of CBS-TV 42 covered the storm commemoration held in Pratt City Friday, April 27, including a performance by Ruben Studdard, a Birmingham native and former winner of TV’s American Idol.
ABC 33/40 offers video of a performance in Pratt City on Saturday, April 28, by Taylor Hicks, another Birmingham native and American Idol winner.
God’s grace is sufficient
The small Jefferson County community of Concord, located on either side of Warrior Road just north of the much larger Hueytown, has often been overlooked. Unfortunately, it was only after the ravages of last April’s tornadoes that the little town received any attention.
Seven people in Concord lost their lives due to the storm (six the day of the event and one a few months later in the hospital), and a large section of the community was virtually wiped away by a storm track as much as a mile wide.
Two of the fatalities were students at Concord Elementary School – sister and brother Haley Alexis (Lexie) Kreider and Michael (Mikey) Kreider, ages 8 and 10, who died with their mother as she tried to drive them to a safe place to wait out the storm.
It seemed appropriate that the school was the location for a memorial and community celebration held on Sunday, April 29, which was declared Concord’s “Get to Know Your Neighbor Day.”
The event, hosted by Concord Community Association president Ben Hamm, included a remembrance of the dead, recognition of area first responders and the dedication of two new “Welcome to Concord” signs that community members hope will help give the small town greater visibility.
Among the speakers was David Foster, principal of Concord Elementary School, who mentioned the Kreider children and their mother while evoking the deep religious faith that so many have turned to in the wake of unspeakable losses. “This month, thinking about our students who were lost in the tornado last April along with their mom, it saddens me, very much, though I know they’re in a better place,” Foster said.
Gordon said the storms gave her a greater appreciation of the small town in which she was raised. “I never knew, until last year, just how much Concord meant to me when I saw a devastated and broken and hurting community, and my heart ached for Concord.”
Picking up the day’s theme of getting to know your neighbors, Gordon tearfully praised the neighbors who came to the aid of her and her family after the storm. “On April 27, 2011, we found out just who our neighbors really are,” she said. “They were the ones rushing to help the wounded. They were the ones offering comfort to grieving people. They were the ones crying with us as they held us close to them.”
According to Gordon, her neighbors made sure that her, her husband and their 18-month-old son got medical attention. “You may not know my neighbors, but they are well worth taking the time to get to know,” she told the gathering of about 150 people.
Sandra Harris, community association vice-president, asked that attendees bow their heads for a moment of silence “as we remember the ones we have lost.” Harris, too, held out a religious consolation. “They are not gone forever,” she said, referring to the seven deceased Concord residents. “We will see them again one day.”
Harris read each of the seven names, and Jo Ann Griffin rang a school bell once after each name was called. Area resident Randy Guyton then played “Amazing Grace” on a harmonica.
Other speakers included area ministers, including Richard Larson, pastor of Concord Highlands Baptist Church. His church was all but destroyed after taking a direct hit from the storm.
Larson summoned up the still-terrifying images of the tornado. “You can still hear the wind,” he said. “You can still hear the crashing. You can still hear the broken window and the tearing of the wood, the falling of the trees. Those sounds are still around us. Those sounds will be here for many years to come.” Larson said that he still remembers similar sounds from a 1998 tornado that struck the nearby community of Rock Creek.
However, Larson said that community support and religious faith can “help mend those hurts, those things that you will face in the future. God’s grace is sufficient, no matter what.”
Larson announced that last Friday, April 27, his church was given building permits by Jefferson County, and that the congregation hopes to break ground for a new building on May 8, the church’s homecoming.
Jefferson County Commissioner Jimmie Stephens said that he is working with the community association to use federal dollars to build a storm shelter for Concord within the next year.
After the program concluded, Foster offered Weld Local his assessment of the way in which the kids at his school have dealt with the trauma of the storm and the deaths of their two classmates. “I have found in talking to the kids, for the most part, they have handled it pretty well, even those whose homes were destroyed” he said, adding that the children have benefited from a lot of community support and the availability of counseling services.
“Occasionally, when it starts getting stormy, they start getting worried, and of course, that will bring back memories of Lexie and Michael for the kids they were close friends with,” he said. “Of course, all the kids knew them, since they had been here since kindergarten.”
Foster said he understands that the children will not get over such an event right away. “I’ve talked with the parents, and some of the kids may have an occasional nightmare about it, which if you had your house blown away from around you, that’s not unreasonable, I don’t think,” he said.
Harris described the significance of the event and how she felt as she read the names of the dead. “They’ve been in our hearts and prayers, and I know the families have been through a lot a year later,” she told Weld Local. “That’s what I thought about Friday is how the families must feel on that day, and so we wanted to do something to remember those families and to continue to remember them and to bring people together in this community, and instead of the community not being together, we want to all come together and remember that day, especially the ones that we lost. They are gone, but not forgotten.”
Also read an account of the Concord event by Kent Faulk of the Birmingham News. Faulk’s story includes video.
In May 2011, the News carried an account of a memorial held at Concord Elementary for the two students lost in the storm.
For more about Concord storm survivor and author Kelly Gordon, watch a story by Sherrie Evans of ABC 33/40.
Learn about the Concord Community Association at www.facebook.com/concordneighborhoodassociation.
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