Talking about April 27th Tornadoes in North Alabama

Talking about my experiences the day before and of the storms…

The Phil Campbell Elementary school website says “Hand in hand; Together we can.” The red white and blue water tank just miles from the demolished Mountain View Baptist church reads “In God We Trust.” These words were never more true than they are today as the citizens of Hackleburg and Phil Campbell, Alabama sift through the rubble of small town life. 

I went off the grid April 26th; the internet had been down over many parts of Alabama due to overnight storms.  My son had attended his girlfriend’s grandmother’s funeral in Muscle Shoals that day. Another round of severe storms had been fore-casted for our area. As I waited to pick up L.J. that evening, I kept a check on the radar with my cell phone. Since Mercedes (his girlfriend) lives in Russellville,  I had to drive through Phil Campbell on our way home that night.

Everything was exactly as it should be, as its been the countless times I’ve driven through town either in route to the hospital with Jackie or taking him to the doctor, going shopping in the Shoals or just to buy groceries at the Pig. The Piggly Wiggly, Dollar Store, and Chat-n-Chew (where I worked for six years) continued in their usual state as landmarks of the town where my husband graduated high school, where our family doctor has his practice. So normal, so constant. You expect them to be there. I barely noticed the stores as I drove past them. I wish now I’d stopped to look for just a minute at the places etched so firmly in my memory.

Driving North on Hwy 5 toward Bear Creek  11:15 a.m. 

But I didn’t. I was in such a hurry to get home. Always running, racing from one task to the next like the devil is on my heels. Jackie had just gotten out of the hospital that afternoon. I had cooking dinner and getting things ready for school the next day on my mind. I would never see the Phil Campbell, AL I knew again. 

I sat up and watched the weather for awhile, not really concerned. Nothing was developing west of us and existing storms were well away from Bear Creek. I went to bed about twelve when Jackie got up to watch TV. This is typical for us. Especially after a hospital stay, he keeps weird hours. At two something he woke me to tell me we were under a tornado warning. Now normally I would load up the kids and drive to the his aunt’s storm cellar just down the road, but having to watch the radar at work a lot has made me a little less cautious I guess. I watched to see the path of the storm, saw it would go well south of us, skirting the Lamar county line, so I went back to bed exhausted with just a couple of hours to sleep before I had to get the kids up for school.
A view of the skyline over Save-A-Lot,
CVS and Dollar General in Haleyville, AL 11:15

That morning I caught a glimpse the news reports of damage in Tuscaloosa before Jackie flipped the channel to an old western ‘Cheyenne’. Schools were called off for our kids, so I didn’t wake them and instead got ready for work. Checked the radar. Stormy but nothing to cause alarm for us. I did hope the internet was back up at work, since I’d probably be checking it throughout the day. 
By lunch we still had no internet, no landline phone and the cell phones were acting wierd. Dark clouds loomed; I was worried. We were completely ‘blind’, our only weather avenue was what little the local station could gather from scanners, because all their systems were down because of the service outage.  We tried to run business as usual, but it’s hard to do that in an office environment without a connection to the outside world. My boss decided to send me home at twelve.  The sky looked awful and by now what news we could get wasn’t good. Fontaine and Winston Furniture let out work early, a blessing. Most of the Winston plant building was demolished and Fontaine took alot of damage from a separate tornado touchdown here in Haleyville around four or so that afternoon. My work place is on the street just behind Fontaine. We didn’t receive any damage that I’m aware of and that is purely a miracle. Our house and all of my family’s homes were undamaged.

On April 27, 2011, an F5 tornado tore through the tiny towns of Hackleburg and Phil Campbell, Alabama leaving devastation and heartache in its wake. First responders rushed to the towns to assist however they could, while the rest of the surrounding communities waited for word, prayed for our neighbors and tried desperately to contact loved ones, friends, and co-workers. At this point we had no power, still no phone and the only way of contact that would go through in Bear Creek was text messages and that was sketchy.

I worried about my father-in-law, who is much like a father to me. He lives in PC, but works in Haleyville at Masonite, which is pretty much next door to Fontaine. My brother-in-law was in Jasper. My sister-in-law and nephews near the damage path in Haleyville and we couldn’t call anyone to check on them. It was maddening.  
L.J. and Anna have a lot of friends in the PC area. We were all worried about Hayley, who lives right in town.   L.J. paced and drove the rest of us crazy, while Anna cried and left countless voicemails on Hayley’s phone. We finally heard from her around ten. She had a bad concussion, cuts, but her family and her house made it through.

The days that followed saw continued power outages and no connections of any kind. The groceries opened without power to sell  what dry goods they could (remember all things cold, milk, meat, sandwich stuff have passed the time safe to sell them), running the registers on generators and offered flashlights for shopping, though most brought their own. No gas could be pumped. Ice quickly sold out, as did grills and things needed to grill out. We managed the first day with junk food and canned stuff that didn’t need cooking. The second day, I had just enough gas to make it to Russellville. I knew they had power from reports on the Florence station. If I could get there, I could get what we needed and get gas to make it home. Anna and I headed that way, but couldn’t go through PC and then was diverted off 243 through East Franklin. The damage there was unreal. We did make it to Rvll, got some grilling stuff and headed home. Most of BC didn’t have water (because of the power outage). We did because we are in a very rural area. Not sure why that made a difference, but it did. Things have returned to a semblance of normal for Hvll and BC, but for some that sense of normal has been shattered. 

Some of my children’s friends who live in Phil Campbell and Hackleburg lost their homes. Hackleburg lost its schools, doctor’s office, pharmacy, grocery, Wrangler plant, and the storm leveled most of the houses and buildings in town. 

Phil Campbell High School was heavily damaged and the town lost its pharmacy, doctor’s office (one doctor (mine in particular) owned both practices), many of its buildings and homes. Still, the saddest loss of all are the many lives taken so violently and the families and friends who are given barely a short time to mourn while they go back to cleaning up the the damage, a forever reminder of the catastrophic storms. My heart breaks for them. 

I’m keeping the black and gold ribbon up in the sidebar of this site indefinitely, in memory of those whose lives were stolen. The pic links to WQLT’s (Um that’s the Florence radio station) webpage with all the ways you can help with the tornado relief efforts. It starts out with local drop off points for supplies, but if you scroll down there are other ways to help. Or you can visit and find out more information there.

I’ll leave you with some pictures I took of the wall clouds that day. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like it. I hope I never seem them again. Hug your loved ones.


In rural Marion Co. (Bear Creek ) looking toward South
Haleyville. The Fontaine Tank would be visible to the
far right of the frame. It’s about 11:40 a.m 4/27/11

From the storm cellar looking toward Aunt Judy’s house and
Bear Creek. It’s around 3:30 in this picture.
Looking toward South Haleyville at around 4:20 p.m. 4/27. The
angle of the pic is strange because I’m about eight feet under
 ground in the storm cellar. The clouds are rolling almost like
ocean waves except in the sky. 
Another view looking toward Haleyville. The checker
board tank near Wal-Mart can be seen from this spot
 and is unseen in the far left of this frame.
Looking direction towards Haleyville from rural Bear Creek
11:40 a.m 4/27/11

Another from the storm cellar. Looking toward the Bear Creek
Phil Campbell direction. It’s about 3:45.

Another view from the storm cellar 4:20 ish