Sherry Blanton with fallen trees

It seems like yesterday and also like decades ago that my husband, the dog, and I huddled in a tiny closet with cell phone, bike helmets (except for the dog) while a war raged around my home of 48 years. There is no way to describe the terror of the hour once my cell phone jangled “take cover” and my husband said “Maybe we should get in the closet.” 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. Just two days before James Spann had talked ominously about the threat of bad weather; a friend commented that we would never have a tornado at the foot of the mountain. Well, the day arrived.

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

It was pitch black and eerily quiet. My phone could work but barely, and we had no idea that two evil tornadoes had spun through the avenues (as we affectionately refer to the north east side of town) leaving massive destruction at every corner.

Two hours later good friend Rufus Kinney knocked on the door asking if we were okay. He broke the news. His house was in shambles, but he was checking on his neighbors. We still had no idea what was waiting for the dawn. Maybe that was a good thing.

About 4 am I smelled something strange, to discover our house and our yard were full of gas fumes. In the dark I tiptoed outside; the yard was a maze of every wire connected to our house. Our city’s fire crew and paramedics were going door to door. They disconnected the gas to the house; at that moment in time they did not realize that my 200 plus year old pine had been ripped out of the ground taking the gas line with it. Every house on the block was slowly filling with gas.

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). And 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. Perhaps, it is time to remove it; our small brick ranch home, however, wears it as a badge of honor. I will save the sign in case I ever tend to dismiss the wrath of a tornado. Yes, we were physically fortunate, but our psyches were battered.

There are angels in every story. I hope I can remember all of those who were there. As in every catastrophe someone says something stupid. I have forgiven them over the year. As I have discovered in a tragedy such as this, no matter your amount of personal damage there is a terrible feeling of loss: grief for your sense of self, for the terrible harm done to your community, for everyone touched by this event.

At 4 am I called Quint Davis of Davis Landscaping, my long-standing 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. He 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.

That Tuesday, while we cleaned, the gas smell continued to linger around us. We had been working just feet away from the source with chainsaws and other pieces of equipment. A wayward spark, a cell phone, a car could have blown us to Piedmont. Mark Williams and Mark Stevens, dedicated city workers, dropped by to see how we were. They smelled the gas, reported the problem and within a few minutes crews were there digging up the gas line and making us and our neighbors safe. I called Lonnie Welch of Encore Plumbing. He was there almost immediately checking our gas lines, fixing problems, reassuring us that we would be fine.

As the city had asked us to stay off the streets if possible we still on day three had no idea of what lay around us – what had happened to homes just two blocks away. We walked to check on Rufus Kinney; his house was unlivable and he was gone; we got to another neighbor’s house which was literally ripped apart by the tornadoes’ winds. My husband said he felt sick and we went home. Life post tornado had begun. Chain saws buzzed twenty hours a day it seemed. It was a very strange feeling when months later our neighborhood was almost quiet. Hundreds of cars traveled our narrow street: Alabama Power workers (heroes), police from everywhere (angels in uniforms), and the “looky loos” were a presence on day one. Hundreds of out of town buzzards swooped to take advantage of our misery. They wanted exorbitant prices to cut trees or repair houses. Many did substandard work, heaping more sadness on people who were struggling but seeking an oasis in the desert.

Our city government rose to the problems of its residents. Homeless, hungry, tired, and worn we received a hand from charities across the country, our city staff, and our local houses of worship. Police barricaded the neighborhood so the ones who were looking to prey on us or steal or just sightsee could not come in. These wonderful caregivers brought us a feeling of security in the midst of the destruction that surrounded us. We relaxed a tiny bit; we could be left alone to grieve. A friend who had massive damage told me months later that she realized there were many types of grief and this was one she had not expected. She felt you only grieved over the loss of people but one can grieve over the loss of trees, homes, personal possession, and the shelter the avenues once provided.

Guardian angel Gail daParma came by for a trip to Wal Mart and gadgets to make my phone work as I had run down the battery of our vehicle trying to charge my phone. My insides turned when I saw the neighborhood for the first time: trees covering the streets; houses crushed by trees and debris. How could our green friends of days ago have turned 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 (angels again) working feverishly to restore order. Gutters and roads were piled feet high with our once massive trees.

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 laid 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 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

We were about five days without power or heat, thankfully the water remained on. We know we were silly but we longed for the phone, for internet or cable.

Good friend Ray Creel lit his grill every morning for the neighbors who needed something hot to start the day. We took turns there to cook something warm.

We took a ride to town to check the cell phone once a day as its connections were capricious. Our home phone sat quiet while others tried to see if we were okay but could not reach us. We learned about life without cable as my husband and I licked our wounds with crackers and cookies and a small library of old movies.

Recovery was slow back then and it seemed to take forever. The big trucks started through the neighborhood working slowly but surely to remove debris. I am not sure how much time it took as time had no meaning. We just wanted for us and our friends to be normal. If we saw folks, the big question, on all are minds were “who was okay, where were people living, how much damage did they have?” Patience became our new mantra.

Little by little we began to find out the fates of good friends. Sandy Kelly and Klaus Duncan had sustained terrible damage to their home and yard. Carolyn Patton, one of my heroines of this entire experience, lost just about all her house. After many tears and smiles she is back in her home. Master Gardeners descended recently to help replant her yard, decimated by the ugly winds.

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 and I formed with others a small unofficial group “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 be green again.

Calhoun County Master Gardener volunteers and staff at Coosa Valley Attention Youth Services grew hundreds of trees bound 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. KL. Brown and Lee Patterson were there with us in spirit and support.

On October 20th hundreds of cars 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 knowing that our small group helped in our community’s recovery. 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; 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.

My neighborhood still has houses that remain the same as this anniversary comes up. Torn blue tarps barely hang on roofs; trees are still crumpled through homes; wrecked cars remain where they were parked a year ago; uprooted trees with roots toward the sky sit, so many reminders of the storm. There are vacant lots where houses once stood and beautiful new homes replacing the ones too damaged to be repaired.

As someone told me you have to move on. Moving on can be difficult with reminders around us. I have talked to folks who went through 2011 and 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.

Days and weeks passed. We had 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 'Rebirth' tree

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

 

 

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