With no proud distinction, I have literally grown up facing the prospect of sudden death from tornadoes. I was 14-years-old when an F5 tornado tore through my community in Pratt City on April 4, 1977. I was 34-years-old when the second tornado ripped through Pratt City on April 8, 1998. I was 48-years-old when the third, and most devastating tornado pummeled Pratt City on April 27, 2011. Ironically, I was born in May. These terrible trios of tornadoes nearly wiped Pratt City off the map, a community that I have lived in since 1967.
How do I prepare for the next major tornado that appears to have made my community tornado-prone? I don’t. Literally, there is nothing you can humanly do to prepare for Nature’s wrath that builds over hours, perhaps, but destroys homes, buildings and lives in seconds. So far, my family and I have simply been “lucky”!
I do remember being in the local grocery store around 1 p.m., on April 4, 1977, browsing for reduced meats. The store manager informed customers that the store would need to close early because a Tornado Watch had been issued. I lived around the corner from the store, so I ran home and informed my mother. Within hours, (around 3 pm) the Tornado Watch was upgraded to a Tornado Warning. Mom ran into her bedroom closet, and I hid in the bathtub. We cheated Death that day.
According to the National Weather Service Weather Forecast Office, “This F5 tornado (Smithfield F5 Tornado) is named after the area which received the greatest damage: Smithfield Drive and Smithfield Lane. At its widest point, the tornado was ¾ of a mile, over 150 homes were damaged and with almost 50 completely destroyed. A total of 22 people were killed with over 130 injured.” Smithfield Estates is located in Pratt City, even though I live in Central Pratt.
On April 8, 1998, I was 34-years-old, and living in my own apartment when the next major tornado pummeled Pratt City. I can mostly remember feeling helpless because I had moved to another neighborhood, ironically named Smithfield, and I could not make it home to protect my mother that day. I watched on TV as a Tornado Warning was issued for residents of Pratt City. I drove to my mother’s house as fast as I could, and saw that she was “okay”. I fully understood what the word “grace” and “mercy” meant after that close brush with death was averted for my mother.
On April 27, 2011, I was 48-years-old, and living back at home due to the effects of the Great Recession of 2009, and my mother was 81-years-older. Many baby boomers assist in taking care of their elderly parents today. However, nothing from previous experiences with tornadoes in the past prepared me for the April 27, 2011 Tornadoes Outbreaks across Alabama!
It was around 1 pm when the school principal announced over the intercom that school would be dismissed early due to “bad weather” (understatement of the year). I was substitute teaching that day. I drove home slowly because the skies were dreary, but not “threatening”. Normally, I would watch my favorite TV shows and cook a good meal at home if I were not teaching school. However, that particular afternoon, all I wanted to do was take a long nap.
This nap was breached late that afternoon when I heard a sequence of tornado sirens. I tried to turn on the TV to watch the news, but the power was out. As I rushed to the front door to observe the weather for myself, I saw trees falling, garbage cans being swept into the air like feathers, roofs being pulled apart like splinters, and cars being tossed like toys. Mom rushed to the front door, and I informed her to hide because we were in the heart of the tornado.
Less than five minutes later, I observed telephone poles split and neighbors running into the streets trying to see if everybody was alright. Siding from many homes and roofing shingles were everywhere. A huge tree landed on the back of our home, and the backyard shed was “busted”. Scenes from the tornado scene in the Wizard of Oz were like a Snow White Disney movie compared to the devastation I witnessed on April 27, 2011. It was more like my community was Gone with the Wind (literally).
According to the City of Birmingham CDBG-Disaster Recovery Action Plan(May 2012), “On April 27, 2011, Alabama was hit by 62 tornadoes which took the lives of 248 people, damaged or destroyed 23,000 homes, and ruined hundreds of other structures, including commercial, industrial and governmental structures. An F-4 tornado, which hit Birmingham at about 6 pm the same date smashed into the Pratt City Community. Over 2,200(83%) of the 2,794 homes damaged in Birmingham were damaged in the Pratt City Community.”
What recurs again and again in my memories from this (April 27, 2011) disaster was my neighbors walking up and down the streets in dazes, children (many of whom I taught) screaming (wailing) and sobbing, neighbors (many of whom I socialized with after work) pushing elderly family members in wheelchairs down the streets, strangers asking for water, and a general feeling of total helplessness.
Today (2013), I drive up and down the streets of Pratt City, and many homes have not been replaced. There are just miles of empty lots and brick foundations left where there once were sprawling homes. Some churches have been re-constructed, but many of their members have not returned since they were re-located. In many parts of Pratt City, there used to be a church on every corner.
However, many community organizations locally, and across the country, have rebuilt many new homes where old, historic houses used to be. The only neighborhood library is being re-constructed. Small businesses appear to be thriving again. A Family Dollar store now sits on the lot where a used car dealership used to be, and from where I bought a used car from. Local apartment buildings appear to be full of new and old neighbors again. The community’s fire station relocated about two blocks down the street from where I live. I’ve gotten used to the sirens from the fire trucks, but I will never get used to, or complacent with, the sirens from Tornado Watches or Warnings.
What is more important to many of the residents of Pratt City now is that the Tornado Disaster Relief Center is closed. Children are misbehaving again in some classes where I teach at the local schools. This is good, even though some of their behaviors are bad, because I know that we all are survivors.