On Tuesday, it will have been 10 years since an outbreak of tornadoes hit Cullman County and other areas of Alabama. The scars - evident in still-vacant lots where buildings and homes once stood - are still with us. But it was also a day of miracles, hope and rebirth.
Looking back at the ferocity of the tornadoes as they churned through Cullman, tossing debris and crushing homes, buildings and churches in their wake, it is a miracle that there were not more injuries or deaths in our county.
The devastation was stunning.
The Cullman Times’ story of the destruction downtown captured the aftermath: “City residents and business owners wandered through a marsh of downed power lines, oak trees julienned by the storm into frayed toothpicks; overturned trucks, masonry rubble and drifts of unidentifiable debris. Many who emerged from shelter walked seemingly without purpose, dazed by the scale of destruction that altered the footprint and character of Cullman’s downtown in the span of only a minute.”
But Cullman’s people were stronger than the winds that blew through the city that day.
As one woman surveyed the transformed streetscape along Third Avenue, she offered a promise to an invisible audience: “We’ve got to come back strong.”
Cullman has come back strong.
The city used the opportunity to redesign the affected downtown blocks, burying utilities and creating a unified look and feel to the area.
Within a year, East Side Barber Shop, which took a direct hit from the EF4 tornado, was back in business. Two days later, on the first anniversary of the day of destruction, the iconic Busy Bee Cafe also reopened. These small business owners embodied the “can-do” spirit of Cullman.
Sheriff Matt Gentry recently commented on Cullman’s collective determination to pull together and pull through: “I think that’s one of the great attributes that we have in Cullman, is the willingness to do whatever it takes get the mission accomplished together, and I think as long as we instill that every day, then no matter what the disaster is, we’re very, very successful as a community,” he said.
No one who experienced the events of April 27, 2011 will ever forget them. Nor are they likely to forget the events of that followed: Neighbor checking on neighbor, the smell of food cooking for communal meals, the sounds of chainsaws and hammers as a community rebuilt together.
There were many lessons learned that day, but one of the most important as to the true nature of Cullman.