My Story: Leanne H. West

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City of Cullman

From The Cullman Tribune, April 28, 2016 edition:

 

April 27, 2011 – My Story

Leanne H. West

 

I will always remember April 27, 2011, along with everyone else who was in Cullman County (or anywhere in Alabama) on that fateful day. I had the misfortune to be near ground zero of two separate tornadoes that day: The early morning EF-2 tornado in Hanceville, and the afternoon EF-4 tornado in downtown Cullman. My story is somewhat long, but I was encouraged by my husband to write it down so it will be preserved for my grandchildren and future generations.

Tornado #1

The meteorologists had been telling us for days that April 27th was going to be bad. My husband, Keith, and I were carpooling to work at that time. Around 5:45 a.m., as we were traveling down I-65 toward API (where my husband works), we received a call from our son-in-law. He had been at work at the County Sanitation Department in Dodge City and was calling to warn us that a really bad storm had just gone through that area. We had just passed the Dodge City exit when he called, and the weather was fine except for being somewhat cloudy, so we figured it must be a slow moving storm. So I thought to myself that I’d take Highways 91 and 31 to get to my office at Cullman City Hall after I dropped my husband off, so I wouldn’t risk running into that storm on I-65. In hindsight, that was the wrong thing to do.

I dropped my husband off at work shortly before 6 a.m. It had just started to rain, so we said “bye” quickly, and I headed toward Highway 91 and straight into the scariest situation I have ever been in in my life. Shortly after I pulled out onto 91 heading toward Hanceville, the sky grew dark, the rain intensified, and the wind – oh, my, the wind was frightening. Trees were bending over the road! I’ve never before or since seen trees bend that much except during hurricane coverage on TV. I was driving under bent trees that I could only really see when the lightning would illuminate the sky. Tree limbs were falling all around me, and whole trees began falling on the road behind me. Suddenly, as I looked in my rearview mirror, I saw a dark ominous figure eclipse the entire back window of my car. An entire tree had fallen so closely behind me that some of the limbs brushed the back of my car. At this point, I wanted to get off the road, but I could barely see and there was nowhere to pull over that wasn’t surrounded by trees. Somehow, I managed to get my husband on the phone. But I was totally hysterical, and then lost connection and could not get through to him again.

Finally, I came upon the Chevron service station on 91 where I pulled over and parked. My intention was to run inside to seek shelter, but by that time my car was rocking in the wind and debris was flying all around me. Roof tiles from an old dilapidated building next to the service station were hitting the back of my car. Fearing my car would be flipped or that an object would fly through the window, I sank down in my seat and prayed. I knew at that point I had to be in or very near a tornado. But then I looked to the left of me where a man had also pulled over to wait out the storm. As I lay in my car, crying and praying, he was calmly sitting up sipping what appeared to be coffee. Through prayer and seeing this man calmly enduring the storm, I finally felt calmer myself and at peace with whatever was going to happen to me.

But then, as quickly as it had begun, it stopped. The sun came out and everything seemed to be this beautiful shade of green. As I pulled out onto the highway, however, I realized the extent of the destruction. I would later find out that an EF-2 tornado had tracked right through Hanceville, just yards up the road from where I stopped. I proceeded to drive around downed trees and power lines, praying that everyone in the path of this storm – many of whom may have been sleeping – were okay. It was eerily quiet and still. No one was outside anywhere, very few cars were on the road, and no emergency crews were anywhere to be seen yet. But the destruction was terrible.

At this point, I began calling my kids and other family members to make sure they were okay. And I was able to talk to my husband again, too, and let him know I was alright. But I felt as though I was in a state of shock the rest of the day.

Tornado #2

Now, fast forward to about 2:45 p.m. that same day. I was at Cullman City Hall with Mayor Townson and my co-workers. Tornado warnings were issued. Soon it was reported that a tornado was on the ground heading toward downtown Cullman. Several folks looked outside and saw the tornado, saying it appeared to be heading straight for our location. But I didn’t want to see it, and I didn’t look.

We took shelter in a vault, along with a TV cameraman and reporter, expecting the worse. At around this time, my sister called from Birmingham. This time I was the calm one on the phone, though, because she was panic-stricken. She was watching James Spann on TV as he was covering the tornado in downtown Cullman live on the air. Somehow I managed to keep talking to her even from inside the vault. I assured her repeatedly that we were safe, while in my mind I feared we were about to receive a direct hit. I believe we were all praying at this point.

At one point, the lights flickered in the vault, and we all stood there, waiting. And then it was over. We emerged from the vault to find some debris in the parking lot, a broken window, etc. – but City Hall and the surrounding area was basically unscathed. Then the reports began coming in from other parts of the city, though, and the rest is history: A powerful EF-4 tornado had ripped through the heart of downtown Cullman.

My family and I were very fortunate because we suffered no damages or losses at all from either of the tornadoes that traveled through Cullman County that day. That’s why I feel a little uneasy sharing my story, because so many people suffered so much loss and I suffered none.

In fact, I actually gained a lot from the experiences of that day:

  • I gained a deeper appreciation for my family and for the material possessions I’ve been blessed with in this life. This type of experience makes you realize how fragile life is. When you’re worried about the safety of your children or your spouse or your parents or other family members, and you are utterly helpless to protect them, you realize how much you love them and how little time you devote to showing them that you love them. And when you are forced to live two or three weeks without hot water, lights, refrigerator, stove, gas for your car, and so forth, you realize how many things in your life you take for granted.
  • I gained a greater respect for the people of Cullman. Everyone pulled together to help one another. Here at City Hall, where we thankfully had a wonderful generator that supplied full power throughout the immediate aftermath of the tornado, we were provided with wonderful meals by local churches, businesses, and individuals. Those who could work, worked. Those who could provide shelter, provided shelter. Those who could feed others, fed others. (In fact, the food was so good and plentiful that another thing I “gained” was weight!) It was an amazing thing to experience and to witness.
  • I gained a greater respect for our city and community leaders. The servant leadership of Cullman’s Mayor and City Council was outstanding! Mayor Townson, in particular (because I worked so closely with him in the days and weeks that followed), displayed a calm, empathetic, and decisive leadership style. He took what he had learned in an EMA class and delegated responsibilities to various city officials, and made sure that the lines of communication with the public were always open. In times of crises, leaders are tested. And regardless of whether you like them or dislike them, agree with them or disagree with them, I don’t think there are many who would argue that their leadership in the aftermath of the tornado was commendable. And I don’t just say that because they sign my paychecks.
  • I gained a greater admiration for my fellow city employees. All of our departments – police, fire, street, water/sewer, sanitation, traffic, wastewater/water treatment, safety, power, building, parks & rec, administration, and any others I’ve neglected to mention – put in many long hours doing whatever was necessary to provide emergency assistance, clean up, keep citizens and workers safe, and restore vital services.
  • I gained a more positive view of humanity. It’s easy to focus on the negative things in this world, because there are plenty of them. But after the tornadoes, people came from all over the nation just to help. That reminded me that, even though we live in a fallen world full of sin, the Lord still works through people to accomplish good.
  • Finally, I gained a more realistic view of my spiritual life. When I ran headlong into that first tornado, I was terrified that I was going to die. I called out to the Lord at that point, but I realized that I didn’t have the peace in my heart that I should have had in that situation because I had been neglecting regular prayer time and fellowship with the Lord. That was a sobering thought, and one that has stayed with me until this day.

April 27, 2011, was an unforgettable day for Cullman. Many lost their homes, their possessions, their businesses, and a couple of people in Cullman County even lost their lives. But I believe that day also allowed others besides myself to focus on what is truly important in life. The material things we enjoy in this life –houses, vehicles, possessions – can be taken away from us in a flash. In the end, all that truly matters is “faith which worketh by love” (Gal. 5:6).

I am thankful to those who warned us of the coming dangers of that day well in advance; to those who responded to all of the emergency calls and needs that followed the storms; to those who placed themselves in dangerous situations to clean up debris and restore utilities; and to those who volunteered their time to feed, clothe, comfort, minister to, and provide shelter for workers, volunteers, and displaced citizens. And I am thankful to live and work in this community!

 

Photo: Bent, but not broken. Tornado monument at Heritage Park.