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June 01, 2011   Email to Friend 

Nature Unleashed
Debra Davis

Bottom right, Marion County Farmers Federation Board Member Warren Williford and Federation Executive Director Paul Pinyan in front of Williford's destroyed business in Hackleburg; bottom left, Afla Adjuster Lee Lowery discusses a claim with Tuscaloosa policyholder Willie H. Beall; and top, officials clear the streets of a Cullman neighborhood.
The worst storm to hit Alabama in recent history brought out the best in the people who live here, according to Jerry Newby, president of Alfa and the Alabama Farmers Federation.

Officials believe 328 people were killed across seven states by the band of tornadoes, labeling it the deadliest twister outbreak since the Great Depression. According to the latest count by the National Weather Service, 35 tornadoes hit Alabama on April 27, where the death toll topped 230. Many people were still missing at press time.

Stories of survival and sadness filled newspapers, TV and radio accounts of the storm. Newby said despite the widespread damage, farmers showed why they are the backbone of rural Alabama.

"As soon as the storms were over and our Federation leaders knew their families were safe, they began helping their neighbors and making sure their farm animals were safe," Newby said. Federation members from throughout Alabama, as well as Farm Bureau members from other states, brought equipment and helped clear debris, build fences and cook food.

Cullman County Federation President Kenneth Neal, whose home was completely destroyed around him by a tornado, immediately began trying to help others despite facing personal loss.

Neal, who lives near the Trimble Community in western Cullman County, huddled beneath the stairwell in his basement as the storm flattened his home on top of him.

"The floor of the house fell through the basement, and I happened to be in the only spot that I could have possibly survived in," said Neal, who was still shaken a week after the event. "I am here to tell anyone who will listen: There is a God and there are guardian angels. My guardian angel was definitely watching over me and protecting me that day.

"Even with all of this around me, I didn't have a scratch or a bruise," said the 77-year-old Neal.

The former poultry farmer had two vacant chicken houses used for storage behind his home that were flattened. His 2,000 square-foot brick home was a pile of rubble.

Days passed before he began clearing the debris that was once his home. "I just can't get started on it right now," he said a week after the storm. "I can't explain it, but all this is just worldly things. They aren't what's important to me. I can make another life, and I plan to since the Good Lord saw fit to spare me. The most important thing right now is to see that my cattle are cared for."

Neal said his cattle were more traumatized than he was.

"There were a few that were hurt, but they will recover," he said. "We had fences down all over the place, and I've still got cows that are missing. But we're rounding them up and moving them to pastures where the fences are still standing. We've already started repairing the fences, and we'll get things back right eventually. I'm just happy to be here to help get it done."

Marshall County Farmers Federation Board Member Dan Smalley who lives near Guntersville, operates one of the largest poultry farms in the state. Ten of his 15 houses were damaged.

Following the storm, dozens of day-old chicks still dazed from the storm scurried among the scraps of tin that littered his farm. "Once I knew my family was okay, I tried to get to the farm," Smalley said, recalling the early morning storm. "The roads were blocked, the phones wouldn't work, and I was afraid that my workers were injured or worse. When I was finally able to get here, I was relieved to find out all of my employees were safe."

Twisters that roared through Jackson and DeKalb counties on April 27 have forever changed the landscape there, as well as the minds of residents like Jackson County Federation Board Member Mack Hughes.

Hughes and his wife, Rebecca, live in a double-wide modular home in the Pea Ridge Community just across the DeKalb County line. They were at the home of his parents, Frank and Alta Hughes, helping clear debris from an earlier storm when a tornado came through late that afternoon.

"We all got in the storm pit at Mama and Daddy's when it came through that afternoon about 6:30," Hughes said. "Their house wasn't damaged, but there were lots of fences down all over the place."

But the young couple's home, only 10 miles away, was completely destroyed. They were able to salvage only a few small mementoes from the debris.

"We're just thankful to be alive," Hughes said. In northwest Alabama, the tiny town of Hackleburg was torn apart by an EF5 tornado, packing winds in excess of 200 miles per hour. Marion County Board Member Warren Williford remembers huddling with his family in the basement of his daughter's and son-in-law's home a few miles from downtown Hackleburg.

"When it was over and we drove into town it was the worst thing I've ever seen in my life," Williford said, still tearful as he recalled the events from the previous week. "There is so much destruction; so much loss."

Williford and his family are credited with saving the life of a Mississippi motorist who found himself suddenly in the path of the killer tornado. Driving toward Hackleburg on U.S. Highway 43, the motorist saw the tornado approaching in his rearview mirror.

"This fella came speeding up to our house and asked to take shelter with us," Williford recalled. "He was a total stranger to us, but he said he knew he couldn't outrun the tornado. He could actually see the debris flying off the road behind him. He got in the basement with us and stayed there until the storm ended." The stranger, who Williford knew only as Mr. Williams, left Mississippi earlier in the day and was headed to Huntsville to carry a generator to his brother, who had lost power in a storm earlier that day.

"The day after the storm, Mr. Williams showed back up with his wife and daughter," Williford said. "He wanted them to meet me and my family. He said he wanted them to see the people who had saved his life."

Stories of survivors continue to surface as the town combs through the rubble. Williford said five days after the storm, recovery workers found a young child, still strapped in a car seat, alive inside an overturned car just off U.S. Highway 43. There was no one else in the car, but the child lived, he said. With only 1,500 residents, it's hard to find anyone in Hackleburg who wasn't affected. Entire neighborhoods were flattened; the school was heavily damaged, and the downtown area was in shambles.

Williford owns Wiginton Paper Products, which was destroyed in the storm. But even as he sifted through the rubble days after the storm, he was counting his blessings.

"My family was spared and I have a place to go home to," he said. "There are people here who have nothing left. They've lost loved ones, their home and their business. But the people of Hackleburg are strong. I think our town will come back and will be stronger than ever."


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