“When a town ends, that’s history.”

May 25, 2011 @ 5:36 am | Filed under: ,

On Monday our travels took us through the little town of Phil Campbell, Alabama. This community is struggling to recover after the devastating tornadoes a few weeks ago. We were told that some of these small towns have been almost completely wiped out and may never come back. That’s a terrible thing to hear, but when you see it, the enormity of takes your breath away. No photo or video can come close to conveying the suffering and loss of the people who live here.

I can’t express how shocking and scary it is, these ravaged streets, nor how monumental the work of recovery. Yesterday we found ourselves in what used to be Hackleburg, Alabama—an EF 5 tornado killed 29 of its 1500 residents, destroyed the Wrangler plant that employed hundreds of Hackleburg citizens, and flattened the town. I’ve never seen anything like it. Enormous old oaks snapped in half like toothpicks, or (somehow even scarier) completely uprooted, lying on their sides with giant stumps and roots ripped out of the earth. Houses crunched and crumpled like old soda cans, or—worse—gone altogether.

I gave up on pictures. The frame is too small; you can’t see how this one little rectangle of rubble is a small segment of a half-mile-wide field of destruction that used to be somebody’s tree-lined street.

I felt uncomfortable, anyway, to be taking them—but Scott said no, it’s important that people know what happened here. It’s been almost a month since these tornadoes, and as you can see, these communities are a long way from recovery. On Monday we were in the archives of a neighboring county where I’m doing research, and the lovely women who work there told us how hard-hit some of these small towns were, and how some of them are just plain not going to come back from this. “When a town ends, that’s history,” one of them said sadly. “That’s history happening right there.”

Last night we came back to the hotel a bit shaken by what we’d seen in Hackleburg. Even weeks later, when you know there’s no tornado on its way back to strike again at that moment, you feel vulnerable and exposed. I kept thinking of the smoke monster in LOST. We’d crest a little ridge and see a swath of flattened trees on either side of the road, the tornado’s path marked out as clearly as a crop circle, as Scott put it. As I uploaded the day’s photos—most of them taken in old cemeteries around the county, quiet, peaceful places untouched by the terrible winds of April—we watched the news out of Oklahoma and Texas with dread and horror, worrying especially about a particular friend who lives near Dallas. I was so relieved to get her “we’re safe” email an hour later, especially after seeing tornado damage up close.

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9 Reponses | Comments Feed
  1. tanita says:

    I call this kind of thing “bearing witness.” Sometimes, we have to look, or else other people can’t, or won’t.

    But, dear God. What a horrible thing to see – to live through, to endure.

  2. Penny says:

    So very powerful. Thank you for sharing these photos with us. I like Tanita’s theory of “bearing witness” – so true.

  3. Pam says:

    My husband was up in the tornado area a few weeks ago with the Alabama National Guard. He said it was heart-wrenching to see. They were not allowed to take photos, which I think is a good thing since they had other important jobs to focus on. He said the same as you, though, the limits of the frame just couldn’t do justice to the scene. If I had known you were going to be in Alabama, we would have invited you over for some sweet tea and a Snoopy sing-a-long. Hope you enjoy your trip.

  4. sarah says:

    It’s absolutely heartbreaking 🙁

  5. Annette W says:

    Some of us cannot even imagine…others wish the nightmare was over. Thank you for sharing.

  6. Hannah says:

    I heard on NPR that there are a whole bunch of people named Phil Campbell from various parts of the U.S. and world (including an actor who plays a character on TV named Phil Campbell) who are helping to raise funds for the rebuilding of that town. Quirky … and uplifting.

    I’m glad you’re there to shine a light on what’s there. Hearing about it on the news can sometimes make it seem so far away …

  7. Amy @ Hope Is the Word says:

    Oh, you’re in my neck o’ the woods–very close to where I live. Thankfully, we suffered no damage in the storms, but we were acquainted with some who lost their lives. Tragic. DH has spent some time in Hackleburg helping with clean up because of his job and because he has relatives who live near there and were affected. Our church has helped with the relief effots, too.

    If I knew where to find you (in a completely non-stalkerish way, but in a I-have-a-little-girl who LIVES, EATS, and BREATHES Laura Ingalls Wilder kind of way and would be tickled to death to meet you), I’d look you up and buy you lunch. Or something. I’d love to know what/whom you’re researching, too! 🙂

    Enjoy your trip!

  8. Melissa Wiley says:

    Hannah, that is a great story about Phil Campbell! I’m glad to hear that little town will receive some aid.

    Pam & Amy, drop me a note and tell me where in AL you live? We are heading back home tomorrow (via Atlanta) so I’m afraid I have probably missed the chance to see either of you, but you never know!

  9. Jennifer says:

    Very powerful post. I agree with Hannah. It seems very distant on the news.