Like the two small knit purses her grandson dragged out of the rubble of her daughter’s house.
“You found it!” she exclaimed, standing on the porch of her mud-spattered home on Dove Welch Road. “If the keys to the Toyota are here, we can drive to the hospital.”
Flowers’ daughter, Donna Ferrell, had been found earlier, injured. She was going into surgery at UAB around the time the keys were found. Ferrell was in her house, just behind Flowers’ house, when a tornado touched down on Dove Welch Road Wednesday night, killing two people and demolishing most of the houses Flowers used to see from her porch.
That same storm skipped over to another section of Webster’s Chapel, near the rural community’s fire department, flattening at least a dozen homes and potentially many more. With only piles of debris left, it was difficult to tell where houses once were.
The storm that hit Webster’s Chapel Wednesday was part of a storm system that killed more than 230 people across Alabama and at least nine in Calhoun County.
Ferrell nearly became victim number 10, her mother said.
“After the storm came through, she was trapped in her house under 18 or 20 feet of debris,” Flowers said. The barking of the family dog, a German shepherd named Woogie, alerted neighbors that someone was still in the house, Flowers said.
Ferrell has been hospitalized since that night. Her son, Flowers said, has a concussion. Ferrell’s husband, an Army reservist in Afghanistan, was en route to the area. Rescuers left Woogie in the house as they looked for more human survivors. He died there.
Nobody blames the rescuers for moving on from the Ferrell house. Just down the road, longtime Webster’s Chapel residents Bill and Linda Lipscomb were missing from their home. Their bodies were found that night in a tangle of trees across the road from their house, say neighbors who helped cut through the wreckage.
“They were fine folks,” said J.W. Tillison, who lives down the road. “They’d do anything for anybody.”
The Lipscombs were in their 60s, and neighbors say they had lived in the area since the 1970s. They had three sons, Craig, Chad and Chris, who were among the first students ever enrolled at Pleasant Valley School, which opened in 1982, said emergency workers who went to school with the Lipscombs.
Bill Lipscomb, known to friends as “Red,” worked at Gulf States Steel in Gadsden until the plant closed down, neighbors say. After the plant closed, he got a job as a custodian at Alexandria Elementary School.
Neighbors say Red Lipscomb liked to fish in the backwaters of the Coosa. He was also a cabinetmaker whose quality work left him with more orders than he had time to fill.
“He was going to refurbish a cabinet for us,” said Flowers, pointing to her house, now shifted off its foundation. “But it was going to take him some time. He said, ‘If you see my truck, flag me down, and I’ll be happy to get it for you.’”
A hodgepodge of emergency agencies and volunteer groups struggled against the debris Friday morning. State troopers stood at almost every intersection in Webster’s Chapel, warding off sightseers. In a parking lot across from the fire station, Gadsden and Glencoe firefighters, local volunteer firefighters in plain clothes and volunteers from Hill Crest Baptist Church in Saks all worked from a makeshift command center.
An ambulance sped into the parking lot just after 9 a.m., after a volunteer worker cut himself on the upper leg with a chain saw. Other emergency workers said the worker did not have life-threatening injuries but was headed for a hospital.
After the accident, the neighborhood was eerily quiet except for the sound of a distant woodpecker and the putter of ATVs. Firefighters went door to door, painting a fluorescent orange “X” on every house that had been searched for survivors or bodies.
They painted a “W” on the road in front of Nancy Walker’s house — W, as in, “no water.” From the front, Walker’s house looks untidy but untouched. The back looks like a giant sat on it.
Walker and her neighbors rode out the storm in a high-tech spherical metal storm shelter planted in their front yard. From the outside, it’s a small lump of earth with a metal door. Inside, it’s a gleaming white ball like a space pod from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001.
Walker got the shelter after reading an ad from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The ad said people could get government grants for storm shelters. Walker applied to FEMA, waited five years and paid only $2,500 for her $6,000 space pod.
“It says you can seat 10 in here,” she said. “But you could get more if people stand up.” She’s pretty sure the pod saved some lives.
Walker won’t leave her house, she said, until all her undamaged possessions are out. She said she’d be sleeping in the house — with no water and no electricity — until that task was finished.
Fire, water and wind
Back at the command center, emergency workers called Friday morning for a fire truck to be on hand. With people burning debris — and people living in homes without electricity — emergency workers said there was a risk of fire.
Across the street from the fire station, Ray Johnson was more worried about water.
Johnson’s home — large and white, with a proud, wide porch — was a bit of a landmark in the area even before the storm. Now it’s a landmark because it’s one of the few left standing, though holes are in the sides and cinderblocks have fallen out of the underpinning. Beside the house, a fountain of water spurted from a broken pipe in an old-fashioned radiator-style heating unit.
Johnson, a retired store owner, was out in a coverall and pith helmet looking for a way to shut the water off.
“There was a shed here,” he said, indicating a pile of firewood that half-buried the water heater. The storm lifted the shed away and left the wood.
Johnson’s house is probably one of the oldest in Webster’s Chapel, built by A.P. Hollingsworth, who ran the now-closed Hollingsworth’s Grocery, once the area’s only store. Behind the white paneling of the house are log-cabin-style walls.
Phyllis Johnson, Ray’s wife, stood on the porch of this house Wednesday and watched a tornado roll by. As the radio announced storms moving through Steele and toward Rainbow City, she watched the funnel cloud crawl across the horizon.
Then the movement stopped. And the storm got bigger.
“Finally I realized that it was coming toward me,” she said.
Ray and Phyllis Johnson hunkered down in a bathtub as the wind rummaged through their house like a crazed teenage vandal. It smashed open a door locked with a deadbolt. It broke the windows. It pulled open one drawer in the kitchen and threw cookware out on the floor. It stripped the screen off the porch so neatly you’d never guess it was ever screened in. But decades-old photos of A.P. Hollingsworth and other relatives still hang on the walls.
Details like that emerge from every storm. In Webster’s Chapel, where almost everyone the Johnsons’ age has seen a funnel cloud, people can be pretty blasé about the random, fatal nature of twisters.
But this one seems different. Phyllis Johnson remembers volunteering for cleanup with the big tornado that hit the Guin community in western Alabama years ago. People who had been through that storm, she said, would blanche at the sound of a storm siren.
“Now I get it,” she said.