Sherry Blanton 'Rebirth' tree

Sherry Blanton's ‘rebirth tree,’ a red maple purchased two weeks after the tornado.

 

It seems like yesterday and also like decades ago that my husband, the dog and I huddled in a tiny closet with a cell phone and bike helmets (except for the dog) while a war raged around our home of 48 years.

Cable, our link to the world, disappeared, and we were absolutely ignorant except for the dreaded words we had heard: “Tornado on the ground in Jacksonville.”

We felt the winds, heard the sounds of rockets on the roof. Suddenly a tree hit the house and I realized that the safe pine grove where we had lived so peacefully was no longer a place of calm.

Quiet finally reigned and we crawled out of our 2-by-3 hiding place. The dog was in pieces; she had sensed the storm before it was upon us.

It was pitch black and eerily quiet. We had no idea that two tornadoes had spun through The Avenues (as we affectionately refer to the northeast side of town) leaving massive destruction at every corner.

About 4 a.m., I smelled something strange. Our house and yard were full of gas fumes. In the dark I tiptoed outside; the yard was a maze of wires. Our city’s fire crew and paramedics were going door to door. They disconnected the gas to the house. They did not yet realize that my 200-year-old pine had been ripped out of the ground, taking the gas line with it.

At 4 a.m., I called Quint Davis of Davis Landscaping, my longstanding friend and keeper of my garden, and left him a message that I was too afraid to go outside by myself and would he be there at dawn. He was, having walked for blocks to my house. He and his crew set out to clean up the debris, move trees and just be there for my husband and me.

My wooden fence had blown on top of nearby azaleas and needed to be set right. There was a small tree on the roof. Davis and his crew were here for days, repairing my garden and my shell-shocked self.

Tammy Hall, owner of The Garden Girl and my gardening companion, came, and we carefully sifted through my landscape to rescue a few survivors of the storm and find homes for the orphans.

As the city had asked us to stay off the streets if possible, by Day 3 we still had no idea of what lay around us. My insides turned when I saw the neighborhood for the first time: Trees covered the streets. Houses were crushed by trees and debris.

How could our green friends of days ago have turned on us in a matter of minutes and destroyed us?

It was not their fault. Mother Nature roared, and they only did what was second nature and they toppled.

We gradually began to journey out but sometimes the ride took forever as there were so many trucks working feverishly to restore order. Gutters and roads were piled feet high with our once-massive trees.

Life post-tornado had begun. Chainsaws buzzed 20 hours a day it seemed. It was a very strange feeling when months later our neighborhood was almost quiet.

A friend who had massive damage told me months later that she realized there were many types of grief, but this was not one she had expected. She felt you only grieved over the loss of people, but one can grieve over the loss of trees, homes, personal possessions and the shelter The Avenues once provided.

Everybody has a story about the night. Some houses were skipped physically. Some, like mine, received minor damage and major yard damage (at least in my eyes). Others wore the dreaded red sign: too dangerous to be entered. We got a green sign: structurally safe. It still hangs on the door a year later. Our small brick ranch home wears it as a badge of honor.

There are angels in every story. I hope I can remember all of those who were there.

Replanting Jacksonville

In my garden, the damage was not overwhelming. But my heart was breaking.

It is no secret “The Southern Gardener” has a love affair with her plants. Giant pines lay across the yard and hundreds of plants were gone, maybe resting in someone’s else yard now.

My neighbor had an extraordinary tree in his front yard, now broken and uprooted. We laughed about that tree over the years and promised each other that one of us would always take care of it. I saved a small limb to remember its beauty and to keep me humble; life can change in an instant.

A group of us tree lovers looked around the neighborhood and decided we would make a first step in restoring storm-torn landscapes. Our trees were gone; but we could and would replant for the next generation. I will not see those trees mature, but someone else will enjoy their shade.

Truman Norred, Hayes Jackson, I and others formed a small unofficial group called “Retree Jacksonville” to help restore our forest. The community and the city of Jacksonville jumped in with support. We received generous monetary donations, offers of help, trees and love from everywhere. People said thank you.

The clouds began to lift with our purpose; we knew we could plant to replace what was so precious and now gone. Bare yards would soon have life growing, and our world would be green again.

Calhoun County Master Gardener volunteers and the staff at Coosa Valley Attention Youth Services grew hundreds of trees to replace the lost ones. We got trees from Longleaf Botanical Gardens, Alabama Power and Bloomin’ Miracles. Master Gardeners and others around the community (among them The Jacksonville Exchange Club, St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, The Jacksonville Garden Club, the Anniston Morning Rotary Club, and a slew of private individuals whose eyes filled with tears as they rode up our roads) offered their time and love. K.L. Brown and Lee Patterson were there with us in spirit and support.

On Oct. 20, hundreds of people lined up at First Baptist Church in Jacksonville to get trees as “Retree Jacksonville” began our effort to renew our urban forest. Dozens of volunteers stood in the pouring rain to hand out these gifts of love to those in need.

I enjoy riding through town seeing those trees take root and grow. I bless each of those for helping to bring back The Avenues.

As for me, I have grieved. Yes, my gardening crew put the plants back. My fence is back, the litter is gone. But something is not the same. Perhaps, it is the memory of that night, or the knowledge of the suffering of my friends and neighbors.

I miss the shade where my children once played.

Standing tall is my rebirth tree, a wonderful red maple I purchased two weeks after the storm to show I was still here.

As the anniversary of the storm comes up, my neighborhood still has houses that remain the same. Torn blue tarps barely hang on roofs. Wrecked cars remain where they were parked a year ago. Uprooted trees sit with roots toward the sky. There are vacant lots where houses once stood, and beautiful new homes replacing the ones too damaged to be repaired.

Moving on can be difficult with reminders around us. I have talked to folks who went through the 2011 tornado. They said it takes a long time to move on. They told me their valleys are just greening up. A ride toward Gadsden even now bears witness to that storm with bent and broken trees.

As the days and weeks passed in The Avenues, we found a new normal. The remaining dogwoods burst into bloom, and the azaleas (bless their beautiful hearts) cheered us with a remarkable show. We learned how the worst in nature can bring out the best in people. Compassion is alive and well in Jacksonville, Alabama, on this anniversary of the terrible storm.

Sherry Blanton, “The Southern Gardener,” writes about gardening for The Anniston Star. Contact her at sblanton@annistonstar.com. Follow her on Facebook at Southern Gardener-Anniston Star.

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