Reflecting on recovery
The EF-5 tornado of April 27, 2011, is impossible to forget. It changed Franklin County forever.
Each person has his or her own story about how the storm changed the world that day. The familiar sights of home were damaged and destroyed. Lives were taken. The storm that ripped through Franklin County’s streets and landscapes also ripped through the hearts and minds of its people, creating painful memories that will forever mark April 27 – scars that will fade with time but might never fully heal.
Roy Gober remembers the day as clearly as anyone. EMA director at the time, Gober was on the front lines of mobilizing response teams. He remembers watching the storms as they swept through Mississippi and closed in on Alabama.
“We knew they weren’t going to stop when they got to the state line,” Gober said. “We prayed they would go south of us or north of us, but we knew Alabama was going to get kicked. As it turned out, Franklin County got kicked.”
As the EF-5 tore through the area, Gober continued to watch the path of the storm and organize response teams to the communities reporting greatest damage. He immediately coordinated with the mayor of Russellville to get a command post, with a captain level or above in charge, in Phil Campbell, which the mayor quickly agreed to.
“He was just doing what he could do,” Gober said.
Everyone was just doing what they could, in the hours, days, weeks and months that followed.
“There were just hundreds and hundreds of volunteers who turned out,” Gober said. “People just came together and worked and helped. It wasn’t left to the city or the county. You just can’t say enough about that because that’s how we got through that thing – neighbor helping neighbor.”
Current EMA director Jody Hitt was with the Russellville Fire Department at that time.
“I was stationed with Capt. Thornton, and we got told to go to East Franklin – to try to work our way to east Franklin,” he recalled. “Our initial call was to go to Hackleburg – to Wrangler – but 9-1-1 was getting calls from the East Franklin community, and that’s where they re-routed us.”
Oak Grove was hit hard by the storm.
“I stayed out in East Franklin for a while,” he said. “Around Friday or Saturday – I was a deputy coroner – we had a meeting, and they assigned me to help Elzie identify and take care of the dead.”
It was four days before before Gober, other local authorities and emergency response teams had a thorough sense of the extent of the damage caused in the county. “It exceeded anything we’ve ever seen in Franklin County,” Gober said. “I don’t care how prepared you are. When you have an EF-5 tornado come in and clean your clock, whatever you do isn’t enough. It’s just not.”
In the immediate aftermath, nearly everyone was operating on adrenaline. As time wore on, Hitt said other emotions had time to set in.
“When you go out there your second or third day, you come down (from the adrenaline rush),” he said. “The magnitude of destruction that happened – you just think, ‘Oh my gosh.’ But you had a job, you had stuff you had to do. You just tried to put it in the back of your mind and go on.”
The feeling of helplessness, Hitt said, might have been the strongest emotion. Gober agreed.
“You can’t let it be emotional,” he said. “But it hurt.”
As state and federal recovery funding flowed in, Phil Campbell and East Franklin began to recover and rebuild. Part of that included any efforts that could be made to be prepared for future storms that might threaten the community.
“We put in a hundred individual shelters,” Gober said. “And we put in ten community shelters and eight new sirens.”
There is no way to go back in time and take back the impact of the EF-5 tornado, but Franklin County has continued to push forward – remembering that terrible day and holding tightly to the memory of those lost, but latching on to the hope of a future in which the bonds created will continue to unite and fortify this community, making it strong enough to face any challenge.