Bringing out the Best: Friends, family, even total strangers respond to storm victims

A Daystar Church volunteer crew cuts and clears downed trees in Walter Wednesday morning. (W.C. Mann for The Cullman Tribune)

WALTER, Ala. – The little Walter community in southeast Cullman County is no stranger to meteorological phenomena. The EF-2 tornado that passed through Hanceville during the April 27, 2011 outbreak also passed through Walter, causing property damage. On March 19, 2018, the current Alabama state record hailstone was collected in a North Walter yard that had been in the path of the 2011 tornado. Only a few days before, on March 6, 2018, the northeastern edge of the community was even the site of an admittedly not very non-disastrous earthquake, a mild 1.7 magnitude that was only detected by seismometers.

On Easter Sunday, April 12, 2020, another EF-2, part of a storm that had just struck Good Hope and Johnson’s Crossing, dropped into Walter along County Road 703. According to National Weather Service investigators, the tornado ran 2.5 miles through the community, uprooting and splintering trees, and removing roofs from houses, barns and chicken houses along a path of destruction up to 350 yards wide.

Gene Mayfield recounts tornado impact and response

Gene Mayfield’s home at the intersection of County Roads 703 and 768 took a direct hit, losing its roof and sending debris hundreds of feet away. The interior of the house suffered severe damage, exposed to wind and rain.

Mayfield recounted the events of Sunday evening: 

“I had this eerie feeling all day Sunday. And when it came, the second tornado warning was the one that really got to us, because they said the first one was going north. But then the second one: they said it was coming right this way. We got in the bathroom, and I asked my wife: I said, ‘Where’s your raincoat at?’ She said, ‘What’ll I need that for?’ And I said, ‘Well, we may need it.’ And sure enough, we did.

“We went into the bathroom and she was sitting in a chair, and I had my back against the bathroom door. And when it started coming to us, it started raining real hard; then, all of a sudden, the house went to whistling. You hear an old house, how it whistles through the windows, around the doors and windows? Well, it started whistling, and it just got louder and louder and louder; magnify that thousands of times. And the whistle was so eerie, it just hurt your ears.

“But as far as a roaring sound, we never heard a roaring sound. And then, all of a sudden, the roof just went to peeling off. And I leaned over and grabbed the back of the chair arms, and had her between me and the chair, but we never lifted off the ground or anything. But the roof just started peeling off, little by little, more and more and more. And in a matter of, it seemed like, five seconds or more, it was over and done with.”

Within minutes, the community response began with Mayfield and a neighbor yelling across the yard to check on each other. A short time later, the Berlin Volunteer Fire Department arrived, followed by a large number more to come over the next two days. 

Said Mayfield, “The majority of them was kinfolks: brother-in-laws, sister-in-laws, nieces and nephews, our Pastor at Duck River Baptist Church and his father, and some of the church members. Then- I’m in the volunteer fire department at Walter- and some of the volunteer fire department came. We are a close-knit family, and we’ve always helped each other any way we could.”

After consultation with his insurance company, Mayfield will not repair his severely damaged house. Already preparing for a major renovation of the old one, he will instead build a new house even better than before, with accessibility features for family members and, as might be expected, a storm-proof safe room.

Etsel Riddle commends friends and strangers

Rev. Etsel Riddle, pastor of Oak Level Baptist Church and former pastor of Walter Baptist Church, and his family live next door to the Mayfields; their roof was damaged, but held in place, preserving the interior of their house. They found their vehicles penned in by fallen trees and pieces of the Mayfields’ roof, and substantial damage to a storage building.

A short time after the storm, a Berlin firefighter arrived at Riddle’s home to check on the occupants. Later, with the initial round of urgent calls behind them, a crew returned to cut some larger fallen trees and clear a path for a family vehicle to the road.

On Monday, as Riddle and his family sat down to take a break from cleaning up, Gary Baker, a former member of Walter Baptist Church who has remained a family friend over the years, appeared in the driveway, chainsaw in hand, asking simply, “Where should I start?” Riddle retrieved his own chainsaw, and the two went to work.

Additionally, Riddle related, a young lady he could only remember as “Britney” stopped by the house to ask if there was anything she could do. She went to the store and bought a battery for Riddle’s tractor, so he could use it to haul debris.

A little while later, though, Mitch Duke, another member of the Walter Baptist Church family, arrived on his own tractor fitted with a grapple to pick up large loads of debris and move them to the street. In an afternoon, what would have been days of labor for the family was finished.

Riddle told The Tribune Tuesday, “I did not know that either one of them was coming over yesterday to help me out; they just showed up. That’s the kind of people they are: just wonderful, caring, sharing people.

“I tried to pay both of those men for their labor, and they would not have it. So, what they were doing was community spirit giving. They gave to me, and I hope that in some way I can pass it on, pay it forward to someone else. Not a whole lot I can do, but I can do some things.

“I was real pleased with them. I wish that there was some way I could repay them. They’re just good men.”

Daystar Church arrives in Walter

On Wednesday morning, a volunteer crew from Daystar Church arrived in Walter with chainsaws and gloves, after two full days at Johnson’s Crossing, to cut up and clear downed trees just down the road from Mayfield and Riddle. Between Monday and Wednesday, more than 30 members of the church came out to help in various locations.

Daystar Global Outreach Director Chris Hopper, who was a member of the crew, told The Tribune about his team, “I love them! They’re selfless. Their servants’ hearts (are) something that challenges me to live up to. They’re the hope of the world, man. ‘Love God, love others:’ that’s their motto and they live it out. They walk it out every day.”

Let us know!

What have you seen? If you were a storm victim helped out by someone, or if you were a member of a group responding to the storm anywhere in the county, let us know. We know people don’t do selfless things to get attention and praise, but we want to give it to them anyway!

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Gene Mayfield’s North Walter house will be rebuilt better than before, including accessibility features and a storm-proof safe room. (W.C. Mann for The Cullman Tribune)

W.C. Mann