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December 23, 2012

THE TIMES’ YEAR IN REVIEW (NO. 8): One year later: Cullman rebuilds

From business to churches, locals return in wake of 2011 storms

CULLMAN — Editor’s note : Cullman’s downtown and historical district saw a rebirth in 2012 after the devestating 2011 tornado. Many downtown businesses reopened their doors in 2012 and that was just the start. The ongoing rebuilding of homes, churches and businesses is a reminder of Cullman’s endurance and will to fight back from hardship.

It’s been more than a year since Cullman was ravaged by a tornado in April 2011 that decimated several blocks of downtown and flattened homes across the county. One year and eight months later, and the signs of progress still persist around the area. Though several businesses have since re-opened, many are still rebuilding as we inch closer to 2013. Several homes have sine returned, though battered reminders of the storm’s wrath still dot several communities, from empty plots to barely-standing structures.

Local officials, business owners and residents are now trying to use the tragedy as a new beginning, and a handful of displaced businesses have since reopened in what the city dubbed “ground zero” around Fifth Street in the months following the tragedy.

The council established some downtown design guidelines they hope will preserve the historical aesthetic once rebuilding starts. The document, drafted by local designers and the Nashville-based Walker Collaborative, includes some basic facade requirements, and encourages historic German styles.

“We have a blank canvas for the first time since our forefathers built these buildings in the late 1800s, and whatever we rebuild will probably be there for the rest of our lives,” city council president Garlan Gudger, Jr. said in a previous interview. “It’d be doing a disservice to the people, if everyone was satisfied with the status quo, to just build back haphazardly. What we want to do is rebuild correctly the first time, in such a way that it really honors not only the architecture, but this community’s way of life even more so than before April 27.”

The tornado damaged more than 100 businesses in the city alone, completely destroying dozens in a four block radius on the southeast side of downtown.

Despite the challenges, Gudger said he believes the people of Cullman are resilient and will persevere in the years to come.

“I believe there’s potential for growth, for people who were ready to retire but felt they couldn’t, to sell out or have someone else come in,” Gudger said. “There’s been a rejuvenation in the property and the people in downtown. The key is getting people who want to be in business down here back in business as quickly as we can. I’m more excited about downtown than I’ve ever been.”

One of Cullman’s most famed downtown stops, the Busy Bee Cafe, was leveled by the storm. The restaurant actually reopened in the same location with a new building on the one year anniversary of the tornadoes and is going strong with an expanded menu and hours as the new year approaches.

“The Busy Bee is a staple, and like we’ve always said, if it moved somewhere else it wouldn’t do as well, and besides, I don’t know how to do anything else,” owner Kitty Spears said in a previous interview. “The Busy Bee belongs on this corner.”

As for the timing, Spears said she had no superstitions about reopening on the same day the restaurant was hit. If anything, she believes it can help local residents accept and move on from the tragedy.

“I’m excited and we wanted to do this on April 27 to show we’re victorious, and can overcome,” she said. “The storm was a tragedy, but look at what we’ve been able to do because of it. I would have been too scared to ever try this, but we were forced into it, and it’s worked out and we can do a lot of new and exciting things.”

But, don’t think that means the old Busy Bee atmosphere has been lost.

“We’re trying some new things, but we’ll still have our classic breakfast and lunch menu,” Spears said. “We’ll still have that atmosphere, where everybody knows everybody, and you’re greeted when you come through the door.”

A few blocks over, a long and adventurous journey also ended for Dr. Jonathan Echols and his dental assistant staff at Cullman Family and Cosmetic Dentistry, as they too re-opened their doors.

From U.S. Highway 278 West into town, the new building has a design easily mistaken for a modern-day home. It has a front porch equipped with rocking chairs and ceiling fans, and on the inside there is a fireplace and a place for a coffee machine. Flat screen televisions are in each of the rooms, as well as in the lobby.

“We wanted to make it home,” Echols said just before the businesses opening in early August. “We didn’t want it to feel like a dentist office.

In addition, the office has since gone paperless, as well as added digital X-ray machines, and digital tooth impressions for crowns. The basement to the building has a storm room with concrete walls and ceilings.

New fire station in service for Johnson’s Crossing

Candy Reeves couldn’t believe what she saw when she arrived at the Johnson’s Crossing fire station on the morning of April 27, 2011.

“Every which way I tried to get here, I couldn’t,” the assistant fire chief for the department said. “But when I finally got to the station, I walked back to a neighbors house and saw our building was totally obstructed by two trees. Luckily we were able to save our trucks.”

Because of the damage, the department was without a permanent home until last month, meaning its fire engines and equipment had to be housed in a temporary tent-like structure provided by the Army Corps of Engineers. After the contract on the structure ran out last December, and the department couldn’t afford to pay $1,500 per month in rent to keep it, the department was then forced to house its fire engines and equipment at other nearby stations, while storing the brush truck and EMT- rescue truck at a volunteer’s house.

At the same time, the waiting game was being played with the state Emergency Management Agency to approve the money needed to begin rebuilding.

“It’s been a long process,” Reeves said at the open house of the new station. “A long 18 months of it, but I’m proud to have what we have now.

Should the department lose power for a lengthy period of time again, the new station is equipped with gas heat, gas water heaters, and gas for cooking.

“Should anything happen of that magnitude again, we’ll now have a place with heat for shelter,” she said.

Rebuilding moves forward at churches

Inch by inch, brick by brick, the congregations at East Side Baptist Church and Christ Lutheran are moving ever so close to returning to their homes.

In September, East Side held a groundbreaking dedication service on their new property located on U.S. Hwy. 278 at the corner of Convent Rd. Now, heading into the new year, the walls and rafters in place, and construction workers are ready for the next task at hand.

“These last few months have kind of served as a countdown for us,” said pastor Ken Allen in early September. “Not only as a rebuilding of the church, but as the start of our clear vision going forward in ministry.”

Allen said the church was in talks of renovating the old building months before the tornado hit, but due to a lack of space, leaders didn’t know how they were going to get it accomplished. He added they made sure those additions were put into the new plans.

“One of the big things we were in need of was a larger gathering area,” Allen said. “So in the new plans, we made sure we had an ample space for gatherings.”

If weather cooperates, Allen said their target completion date is set for June.

Meanwhile, several blocks over, Pastor Sandy Niiler of Christ Lutheran is in a similar situation. Like East Side, their church too, was leveled to rubble in the tornado. Contractos recently finished bricking the facility.

“It’s a rejuvenating feeling,” Niiler said in September, shortly after the slab had been poured. “Getting the slab poured symbolizes we have a clean base. Everything now is becoming a reality, and not just a bunch of talk.”

So far, every bit of work that has been done has been performed by local companies.

“That’s wonderful,” Niiler added. “People are giving their heart to help rebuild Cullman. Everyone has been so patient with us. A year ago, I said we were still in shock, and now there’s still that unsettled feeling, but a different one.”

Niller is hoping to be moved in to the new building, which sits at the intersection of 2nd Ave. and 5th Street SE, by early spring.

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