JACKSONVILLE — Nearly 100 people gathered at the Jacksonville Community Center gym Saturday night to celebrate a year of recovery from the tornado last year that devastated parts of the college town.
Called Looking Back/Moving Forward, the program brought together city and Jacksonville State University officials along with music, a slide show and hot dogs.
Jacksonville Mayor Johnny Smith spoke to the group about the tornado and how remarkable it was that there was no loss of life during that dreadful night. In doing so he referred sympathetically to the plight of Alabamians who lost loved ones and property in the more recent Lee County tornado.
“Think about the damage we had, it’s just a miracle that we didn’t have loss of life,” Smith said.
Smith said that within Jacksonville’s city limits 433 residences were affected and out of those, 49 were destroyed. He said the contractor hauled off 450,000 cubic yards of vegetation debris and 2,500 tons of other types of debris including construction and roofing debris.
“You think about that much damage and no lives lost,” said Smith.
The mayor credited various factors, including the sheer random timing of the storm: It was spring break and students were mostly gone and families were on vacations.
But Smith also credited the warnings residents received telling them to take cover from the tornado.
“We had great warnings, think back to the TV, the weather radios ...Think about the Calhoun County EMA system,” Smith said.
Smith reflected how the residents came together to help one another after the storm.
“I don’t think I’ve ever witnessed this town come together as they did,” Smith said.
Smith also credited the city employees, who he said did a great job helping with various dimensions of the recovery efforts.
“We’re stronger than we were,” Smith said.
Jacksonville State University President John Beehler saw similar unity from his perspective.
“The one thing that we learned from this tornado is that this town is strong and the university is strong,” said Beehler. “The way everyone came together to get things done is just awesome.”
Beehler thanked all the residents and city officials for the help the JSU has received.
“We had over 100 million dollars of damage to our campus, which is the largest of any state organization in history,” Beehler said.
Beehler said that 40 roofs have been replaced and now two new buildings are planned.
Jacksonville resident Lee Smith and her son Ian, 10, clasped hands as they watched the slide show of images of damage and the cleanup effort. Their somber expressions were a testament to what they went through.
“Our cars were damaged — we lost our cars — our big oak tree in the back was twisted and damaged the deck, so we lost our oak tree,” Lee Smith said. Still, damage to their home wound up being minimal. “We were pretty lucky because everyone around us lost their roofs,” she said.
Becky Bundrum was in the back of the gym hugging her daughter, Julia.
“I think that this is a wonderful event and it shows how much the community has pulled together and I think it’s very uplifting and amazing how much recovery has actually happened in the last year,” Bundrum said.