- Cullman, Alabama

April 27, 2013

'City of character' shines after tornado damage

By David Palmer
The Cullman Times

— Two years after massive tornado churned through the heart of downtown Cullman, the city is coming back in ways that many people never imagined.

Mayor Max Townson said immediately after the tornado cleared the area, he looked around in shock and a sense of dread.

“When you came out and saw what had happened, the first thing that crossed your mind was how many souls were lost,” Townson said. “But people had heeded the warning and sought shelter. We had been warned for a week that this was potentially going to be bad, and it was worse than anyone could have imagined.”

In the hours and days that followed the tornado, Townson began repeating often that Cullman was a “city of character.” The proof of what he was saying unfolded every day after the tornado as volunteers came forward to help clear roads and yards, feed residents and provide clothing and shelter.

“It was like the phoenix rising after the tornado. People could have been discouraged and turned away after so much destruction, but just the opposite happened. It was like people wanted to show that our community would not fold up, that we would first take care of each other and then move forward with new determination,” Townson said.

After the April 27 destruction, residents were without power and life in many ways came to a halt. Government crews quickly worked to restore power, remove debris, and everywhere volunteers were appearing with chainsaws and other tools to help restore the community.

“It’s almost like the tornado awoke a sleeping giant. We were a great community before that time, but when you see the leaps forward since then, it’s inspiring,” Townson said. “You have to take off your hat to the city employees and the citizens. Everyone came together to restore and restart the community.”

In the two years that have passed since the tornado, many businesses rebuilt. Others announced they were coming to Cullman. And Topre International announced a major expansion, boosting confidence that the Cullman area would remain a source of economic vitality.

“A lot of the businesses rebuilt buildings that are much stronger than before, and part of that is because of newer codes since some of the older buildings came about,” Townson said. “But I think you also see a sense of business leaders making a statement that they are here to stay in our community.”

Out of the destruction of April 27 came the Rock the South concert, which is now a permanent annual event expected to brings thousands upon thousands of visitors to the area.

“Rock the South started as a celebration of recovery,” Townson noted. “Now it’s become an important part of our move forward.”

Dale Greer, assistant director of the Cullman Economic Development Authority, found himself in the position of chief communication officer after the tornado. With the assistance of social media, he worked with others to ensure that residents gained information about food, shelter and other services available.

“The information was updated continuously. Your typical forms of communication were down everywhere. The use of social media also brought a large crowd out for the Casting Crowns concert, which was a huge event for the community as it worked to recover,” Greer said.

The spirit of recovery carried over into a massive rebuilding and expansion effort that became contagious, Greer said.

“It was like once it started everyone wanted to be a part of it,” Greer said. “Some of the economic breaks we saw happened at the right time for the community. A lot of confidence was built because of the business and industrial expansions. Explaining a lot of what happened in the aftermath is difficult, but this community showed amazing character and determination. That’s something you’ll never forget.”

David Palmer may be contacted at dpalmer@cullmantimes or 256-734-2131, ext. 213.