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April 29, 2013

Day of destruction leaves area weather-aware

Two years have passed since the horrific day in Alabama history.

However for many people, including Cullman Emergency Management Agency director Phyllis Little, it’s a day that won’t soon be forgotten.

Little, who has experienced a lot throughout her 17 1/2 years in emergency management said nothing quite compares to the events that began to unfold during the early morning hours on April 27, 2011.

“It was one of those days that was very intense and active,” Little said. “It was very different. There were days when we had storms that were bad, but I don’t remember a day when we had storms that were that bad.”

As the first tornado watch was issued at 2 a.m., Little and other emergency responders across the county began being activated. By 5:30 a.m. the first reports of damage started being radioed in from the Bremen, Cold Springs, and Hanceville area.

From there, it would only get worse before it got better.

As early afternoon arrived,  an EF-4 tornado tore through downtown, leaving the corner of First Avenue SE and Fifth Street SE nothing but rubble. Not long after, the community of Fairview was impacted. Several other warnings were issued before the all-clear was given.

“We had back-to-back warning for several hours,” Little said. “There were times where we would work for a while, and then have to stop and take shelter. After the TV went out, we didn’t know what was going on throughout the state. While we were concerned about what was going on in the other areas, our primary focus was Cullman and Cullman County.”

The following days, weeks, and months would be spent cleaning up and getting the town and county back on its feet. While many homes and businesses damaged or destroyed in the storms are back functioning, the bare-branched splintered trees and lack there of, are still present.

Throughout it all, many lessened were learned.

“It’s kind of like the hospital evacuation last Sunday,” Little said. “There are a lot of things we practice on pretty days like the Fair parade, so we already had an idea of what to do. Plans are a guideline. We followed those and kept things going, doing the best we could. The main thing we learned is communication is not a piece of equipment — we learned we need to listen to what others were saying.”

Little added, it’s also helped build stronger professional relationships.

“Those relationships between the agencies were already there, but now, we use those a lot more frequently, and when we talk to each other, we listen more.”

In addition, Little feels the community has become more weather aware since the event two years ago.

“It use to be when we would test the sirens, we might get one or two calls about. Now, we get numerous calls if they don’s sound,” she said. “People are more aware of the weather alert system. The number of people attending our storm spotter classes are increasing as well. In years past, we thought we were doing good if we had 12 people show up. At our last one a few months ago, we had 60 plus. People are becoming more aware of their responsibilities.”

While it’s uncertain when or if the next large event like the April 27 tornadoes may occur, Little said its important to be prepared.

“It’s important that we think about the things we had to do without and think about ways to get around that,” she said. “It might be that it never happens again in my lifetime, or that it could happen again next year. I encourage people to take time to think about what they wish they would have had after April 27, and encourage them to put items back like flashlights, batteries, and cases of water, a little at a time, so that if needed, those things would be there.”

Ashley Graves can be reached by phone at 734-2131, ext. 225, or by email at agraves@cullmantimes.com

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