BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) — On April 27, 2011, a series of tornadoes killed hundreds of people, injured thousands and reduced countless buildings to rubble across a swath of the U.S.
More than 120 tornadoes were reported that day — one of the deadliest outbreaks in the nation’s history. Five years later, some survivors who are still rebuilding say their lives and towns will never be the same.
Casualties were reported in Mississippi, Georgia, Tennessee, Virginia and Alabama — which was the hardest hit, with a death toll of more than 250 in that state alone.
Survivors there say no tornado warning or emergency plan could have prepared them. Alabamians who lived in the tornadoes’ path are trying to move on, but they face constant reminders of what their towns used to be. New construction is juxtaposed with grassy, wind-swept expanses. Jagged tree trunks have replaced thick woods. Cracked driveways cut through the grass and lead to bare foundations or empty lots where homes used to be.
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Here are some of those survivors’ stories.
A tornado left physical scars in the town of Hackleburg, and it’s still taking a psychological and social toll today.
“The sky even gets dark, and my niece goes to pieces,” Deborah Purser said. “I mean, she starts shaking.”
Hackleburg wouldn’t have rebounded without the volunteers who poured in from across the country, said Purser’s 19-year-old son, Clay Scott. The school and grocery store reopened, but the town of roughly 1,500 no longer feels like home, he said.
“It feels like we live somewhere else, like we’ve moved towns or something,” Purser said.
Vince Hughes is still haunted by that same tornado.
Nightmares are less frequent now, but Hughes said he can’t rid himself of the memory of a crying woman who lost her daughter and was left to care for her young granddaughter. The woman is a longtime customer of Hughes, a 53-year-old pharmacist.
“That image sticks out in my mind above most all of them,” he said. “And you saw it repeated over and over and over.”
Hughes and his colleagues set up a temporary pharmacy in a bank lobby, using salvaged medication.
“People needed somewhere to go, and they needed faces to see that they knew,” he said. “Most of my patients aren’t just people that fill prescriptions — they’re friends.”
The tornado had a peak wind speed of 210 mph and left a 25-mile long trail of damage. A separate twister hit Tuscaloosa, where Hughes’ daughter was a student at the University of Alabama. She wasn’t injured.
John Nero, 58, said he lost his home of 20 years when the tornado hit his Tuscaloosa neighborhood. His wife, Pam, suffered a heart attack days later.
The couple’s new home overlooks their former neighborhood. Nero sees the area whenever he opens his front door.
“It used to be an apartment complex right there,” he said, nodding toward a vast overgrown area. “It was flattened, but I could hear people hollering.”
A brick from the nearby College Hill Baptist Church slammed into his upper leg as debris crashed through his home. He still has the brick, as a reminder — God kept him here “to get some things straight,” he said. “That brick didn’t just hit me for no reason.”
Michael and Flora Thomas of Tuscaloosa credit the power of prayer for keeping their home intact.
It was spared from severe damage while nearly every other house on the block in the Alberta City neighborhood was destroyed.
Michael Thomas said he saw the roof of a church hurtling toward him when he looked out the window, and he hid in the bathroom. The windows were blown out and the porch destroyed, but the church’s roof narrowly missed landing on the couple’s home.
“Everything was just torn apart, demolished. They found body parts everywhere,” he said. “You look around and see things and know things will never be the same.”
Sonya Moore and her family were settling into their new Tuscaloosa home and hadn’t even finished unpacking when the tornado came barreling toward them. She and her children hid in a closet.
“We almost lost one of them. The door flung open, and he was so tiny and frail that the wind kind of sucked him up and we had to actually pull him back down,” Moore, 42, said.
Moore’s family emerged uninjured but realized nearly everything around them had been destroyed. Sleepless nights followed. They lived in a temporary shelter, a hotel, a FEMA trailer, and with a relative before finally moving into a Habitat for Humanity home in January 2013.
“We slept on the floor with pillows, blankets whatever we could gather,” she said. “It was just that exciting to be able to turn the key and go into your own home and know that now we’re finally piecing our lives back together.”