The tornadoes that struck the Birmingham area in the early morning of Monday, Jan. 23, took two lives and damaged homes and businesses in Pinson, Clay, Center Point and other communities.
The storms were a numbing reminder, not only of nature’s fury, but of the depressing routine of storms and storm recovery that is becoming a regular part of life in Alabama.
Fortunately, another constant seems to be a continued willingness on the part of area residents to take part in relief efforts.
Approximately 150 volunteers gathered around a white tent outside a Fraternal Order of Police building on Winewood Road in Pinson last Saturday, Jan. 28, at 9 a.m., in an effort coordinated by the office of Birmingham city councilor Lashunda Scales.
The volunteers, who were waiting to be sent on assignments in residential areas in Pinson, included about 25 or 30 members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.
According to church member Lanny Smartt, the church had a total of about 250 volunteers in Pinson, Center Point and Clay. “We’ve tried to send a group to every affected area,” Smartt said.
Some of the depressing signs of spring were in evidence on Winewood Road near the volunteer center, including trees damaged or blown down, and yellow bits of insulation and strips of metal roofing torn by the wind from nearby buildings and left twisted in trees and underbrush.
As I drove from Pinson to Center Point in the cool sunshine through what seemed to be largely untouched residential areas along Sunhill Road and Carson Road, I was reminded once again of how arbitrary the storms are, sparing large areas while coming down to hammer small pockets here and there with a primal, terrifying force.
Driving into the heart of the Center Point business district on Center Point Parkway, I stopped at a relief center at First Baptist Church of Center Point, where more of the symbols of storm season were on display, including supplies of rakes, shovels, contractor bags, work gloves, safety glasses and bottled water.
Relief efforts were being lead that day by several groups, including First Baptist, Christian Service Mission and Hands on Birmingham.
I was told that there would be about 500 volunteers working in Center Point that day.
One of the areas where volunteers were assigned was a hard-hit residential area along 23rd Avenue Northwest, just off Center Point Parkway.
Traffic along the two-lane road was heavy and slowed to a crawl at points as residents waited until they could pass the many utility trucks and other large vehicles associated with repair and clean-up efforts.
I trudged along the road, occasionally crossing from one side to the other, taking care not to trip on a downed power line or get hit by a truck.
I saw another symbol of the storms – dozens of blue tarps glistening in the sun on the damaged roofs of homes.
There were dozens of piles of wood from downed trees.
There were the shouts of residents and volunteers moving vehicles in and out of driveways and the sounds of chainsaws and Bobcats.
As I walked back toward Center Point Parkway, sobered by the wide swath of damage, a middle-aged African-American man in a blue Ford pickup saw me and said, “Man, this is unreal.”
“Yes sir, it is,” I told him.
The Center Point business district along the Parkway sustained serious damage. Several stores in or near the Center Point Plaza strip mall were all but destroyed, including a CiCi’s Pizza location.
A Wells Fargo bank and a Title Max location on the Parkway near the mall had their roofs ripped away.
One of the hardest hit neighborhoods in Clay was the Georgebrook development along Old Springville Road, which suffered horrific damage. The entrances to some of the hard-hit developments, including Georgebrook and Paradise Valley, were guarded by sheriffs.
Manning a relief tent just inside Georgebrook was Clay resident Shawna Smith, who like many people, is dealing with the emotional dimensions of the storms and their aftermath.
“I just had to get out and help my community,” she said, adding later that she felt better being out doing something than staying at home. “I had to be out here doing something. I felt useless, had to be out here.”
Smith said that she had experienced not only sadness, but “gratefulness” that she and her home were unhurt, and that her cousin and her cousin’s children in Georgebrook survived the storm.
But Smith lamented that seemingly capricious nature of the storms, “The little girl that died, [that] was just horrible,’ she said, referring to the death of 16-year-old Clay resident Christina Heichelbech.
Smith has tried to make sense of who gets killed, including Heichelbech, and who doesn’t. “Why them? Why just them?” she said.
At the Pinson volunteer station that morning, Eric Nielsen, a member of Pipefitters and Plumbers Union Local 91 and part of a group of volunteers from Birmingham-area building trades unions, told me that he had been lucky during last April’s storms, suffering only minor damage to his car, despite living in storm-hammered Pleasant Grove.
However, Nielsen said he had been awed by the storm’s power. “That was amazing, that was unbelievable, the destruction that can happen in just brief minutes,” he said.
And it would be foolish to believe that we’ve seen the last of nature’s brutal, powerful statements of its dominion over us.
But like Smith and Nielsen and the other volunteers, we will do what we can to help.
We will do what we can to protect our families.
And we will, somehow, get through another storm season.
Welcome to springtime.
Jesse Chambers is a contributing editor at Weld for Birmingham and a contributing writer at B-Metro magazine. Send your feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.