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April 01, 2012   Email to Friend 

Alabama Rebuilding After Deadliest Storms In History
Debra Davis

Top right, Alabama Farmers Federation Executive Director Paul Pinyan, left, talks with Warren Williford of Hackleburg shortly after the tornado. At right, Williford stands among the concrete slabs that mark the tornado’s trail through the town. At left, Kenneth Neal of Cullman County walks from the rubble of his home that took a direct hit in the April 27, 2011 tornado. Left, he and Federation Area Organization Director Matthew Durdin stand outside his new home built only a few feet from his former home site.
Much of Alabama’s landscape changed forever following the tornadoes that ripped through the state April 27, 2011, leaving a wake of devastation and a hole in the hearts of many who lost loved ones. Despite the overwhelming destruction, a sense of optimism bloomed as residents banned together to rebuild their communities and put their lives back together. Today, traces of the storm remain, but rebuilding is in full swing.

Alfa President Jerry Newby said the company’s advanced planning, conservative financial management and dedicated employees helped Alfa weather the worst storm in the state’s history. “We were able to pay more than 25,000 claims totaling more than $435 million,” Newby said. “Our claims adjusters, agents and customer service representatives began serving our policyholders’ needs even before the storms had passed. Although this was the largest storm in our history, Alfa was able to deliver on its promise to policyholders and, today, has a financial strength rating of ‘Excellent’ from A.M. Best.”

Perhaps no community suffered more than the tiny town of Hackleburg in Marion County, population 1,500. A tattered American flag recovered by workers after the storm hangs on the wall at City Hall.

“We had nearly 200 homes destroyed, and 32 businesses were lost,” said Marion County Farmers Federation Board Member Warren Williford. “It was total destruction almost everywhere you looked.” Williford lost three commercial buildings and another was damaged during the tornado outbreak. He’s back at work now, on a limited basis. Thankfully, his home was spared. He’s spent a lot of time since focusing on rebuilding the town, but the loss of life remains at the forefront of his memory.

“We lost 18 lives right here in Hackleburg – a total of 25 in our county,” he said. “If it hadn’t been for the weather forecasters, there’s no telling how many lives would have been lost.”

Trees estimated at more than 200 years old that served as landmarks for the town are gone, and concrete slabs dot the landscape. In light of the storm, Hackleburg is starting anew. The medical center has reopened, a pharmacy is being built, and plans for Hackleburg School are finalized. Town officials hope for a grocery store to replace the Piggly Wiggly that was obliterated. “In one way, this is an opportunity,” Williford said. “The Wrangler Distribution Center that was destroyed is being rebuilt, and instead of 150 employees, the new automated plant will have 200 employees. Hackleburg is coming back bigger and better than ever.”

Kenneth Neal, a cattleman and former president of the Cullman County Farmers Federation, shares Williford’s optimism. The storm destroyed his home, totaled his SUV and heavily damaged his truck. In December, he moved into a new house built only a few feet from where his home was leveled.

Neal survived the storm huddled alone in his basement. Some of his personal items were discovered hundreds of miles away, including an old canceled check recovered in Chattanooga, Tenn., and a feed bill found in Knoxville.

Neal said the storm changed more than just material things in his life.

“If I had to pick what has changed the most about me, it’s that I appreciate life more,” he said. “Be thankful for what you have, and try to make life as good as you can. I found out that I am really blessed.”

Alfa Agent Buddy Kelley of Cullman said he drove by Neal’s home moments before the storm hit and almost stopped there to take shelter. Instead, he drove on to his office in Cullman, barely missing the storm.

“I missed the tornado by about five minutes,” Kelley said. “No matter how prepared you are, you just can’t be ready for something of this magnitude. I have to take my hat off to Alfa’s adjusters – they went to work immediately and began helping our policyholders.”

Kelley said the storm taught him not to take things for granted, including the weather.

“I was never a person who was afraid of storms,” he said, “but I have a much higher respect for them now.”


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