‘It has become a part of us’
The headline in the Franklin County Times was only one word.
It was the worst natural disaster in Franklin County history, as an EF-5 tornado rampaged through the Phil Campbell and East Franklin areas, leaving 27 dead and much of the area destroyed. Even though 10 years have gone by since that horrific day, April 27 is permanently engraved in Franklin County history.
“It just looked like a bomb went off,” said Franklin County EMA Director Mary Hallman Glass. “I have never seen anything like it.”
April 27, 2011, brought one of the largest tornado outbreaks in Alabama history, with 62 recorded tornadoes in Alabama on that day.
The tornado that hit Franklin County began in Marion County and traveled a total of 132 miles, with winds reaching up to 210 miles per hour.
Several severe weather alerts went off throughout that day as the sky went black and people prepared for what they assumed would be only another day of typical Alabama storms.
“I think we knew it was going to be bad, but we really had no idea just how bad it was going to be,” Hallman Glass said.
Once the sun came up the next day, Phil Campbell community members emerged from their homes to find what was left of their town.
“I can remember Phil Campbell looking like a war zone,” said Phil Campbell Mayor Mike McQuary. “It looked like everything blew up, and everything was just in chaos.”
The tornado left much of Franklin County not only in shambles but also unable to communicate with rescue because of cell towers being down.
“The school really was the hub of the town at the time,” said Phil Campbell High School Principal Darit Riddle. “We printed up a list of names of students and hung it on the wall so we could keep up with who all we had seen and who all was missing. No one had a way of getting in contact with anyone, so it was a very scary time for a while.”
Hallman Glass said as soon as the tornado left the town, rescue began to move out to help.
“The main thing I remember is pulling people out of their houses that were hurt,” Hallman Glass said. “That is the thing that really sticks in my mind the most – all of the injured people.”
The tornado claimed the lives of 27 people in Franklin County, who now have their names engraved at the Phil Campbell Memorial Park.
Riddle said the thing he remembers the most about the tornado was the day after, with the sunshine and crystal clear skies.
“It was like something out of a movie,” Riddle said. “You looked down the road going to Hackleburg, and it was completely clear, and everything was silent.”
People came from miles away to help with a clean-up effort that would take more than 2 months to complete.
“It was amazing to see everyone come together to help,” McQuary said. “Everyone was working together on cleanup, and everyone really pulled together during that time.”
Riddle said Phil Campbell High School, which experienced a significant amount of damage because of the storms, finished the school year at Northwest-Shoals Community College before moving for the next few years into 27 different trailers while the new high school could be constructed.
“I know a lot of people give superintendents a lot of grief for letting out of school for weather when it might not have been necessary, but I am so glad they made that call to release schools early that day,” Riddle said. “It seemed like any other day, releasing from school for weather, but if we had stayed in school that day, we would have had a lot more injuries and possible deaths.
“It really makes you appreciate the decisions that were made.”
McQuary said 10 years later, life in Phil Campbell is back to normal, but there some areas of the town have yet to recover.
“There are still a lot of empty lots left from the tornado,” McQuary said. “A lot of people just didn’t build back and moved on some place else.”
Over the years, a lot businesses have returned, but the tornado still leaves a trace on the town that many believe will always be there.
“I think that is a day we will never forget,” McQuary said. “We have come a long way since then, but it has become a part of us. It changed the town that day.”