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.
When the Godmother Asks
Roy G Biv, Portland spring edition