Looking back to April 27, 2011

Residents and local officials share their experiences from the tornado outbreaks from April 27, 2011, which tore through Cullman County causing immense amount of damage and chaos. These are their stories as told in their words.

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(Cullman Tribune file photo)

Kenneth Nail, City of Hanceville Mayor 

It could have been the worst of days and it was one of the best of days. Cullman, no doubt, got more construction debris. We got more vegetative debris. We hauled over 300,000 cubic yards of debris. We thank the Lord that nobody here was injured. Outside the city up at Chigger Ridge, a man was killed and that was just dreadful. People came together. That was some of the best of times and I don’t think in about three months I got a single complaint. During that time, it was unbelievable how people came together to help each other. 

The city workers, the first week we all worked somewhere around 16-18 hours a day. After then, we scaled back to 12 hours a day. Our people, everybody, everybody worked 12 hours a day for 26 days before anybody had the first off day. No city employee got off for 26 days.” 

I think by Hanceville getting it early, the people in Cullman realized that this was a mean storm coming through. This whole system was a mean system. A lot of folks had closed by lunch. They were out of there. I believe if the tornado had not hit Hanceville that morning, there would have been more fatalities in Cullman. 

It was the real deal and let’s be honest, we get so many false alarms. The siren goes off and we just lay there. We got unconcerned about that. This was the real deal and people started moving and closing businesses. 

I couldn’t have been any more prouder than our folks coming together- Public Works, police, fire, everybody, city hall workers. The whole city crew came together and the citizens were just wonderful. A natural disaster, I’ve worked many of them from my years with the police department, most of the hurricanes in the past 25 years that I have worked on the Gulf Coast- one thing is for sure- a disaster will make or break a mayor or a commissioner or anybody local. If you don’t get your tail in there and put your boots and gloves on and go to work and let the people see you out concerned, it’s going to eat you alive. We’ve worked disasters and helped with disasters where the mayors will be good guys but they were lost as a goose. They had no idea which way to go or what to do. 

Jenny Folsom, Cullman City Council President  

At that time, I was living in my 100-year-old home in the historic district close to downtown Cullman. We had already heard about the early morning tornado that damaged the Hanceville area. It was an unusually strange weather aware day, so the schools and most businesses had closed by noon. 

Around mid-afternoon I heard James Spann on TV tell everyone close to downtown Cullman to go to their safe place immediately!  I had an old cellar under my house, so that is where I headed.  I heard the most horrifically loud roar, the sound of glass breaking, and I was hugging my hot water heater for dear life!  It seemed to last forever, but it probably lasted only a minute.  

I came out of the cellar to find my house was still standing. It appeared to have broken windows and minor damage. As I looked around, all I could see were my 100-year-old oak trees (6 of them) had all gone down. They literally circled my house!  I was climbing over my downed trees when I heard a neighbor yelling and asking people if they were OK. I joined my friend and we walked several blocks checking on neighbors. All we could see was total devastation, but people were coming out of their homes. It was such a blessing that we found no one seriously injured.  

After several months, my house was repaired, the yard cleared and the yard replanted. At that time, I remember telling someone, it is truly a miracle we had no loss of life in the city that day; but it will take 100 years to regrow those oak trees! 

Christy Turner, Cullman City Parks, Recreation and Sports Tourism 

I was at Cullman Wellness and Aquatic Center when the warning was issued and yes, we were watching James Spann. We looked at the radar and knew it was headed straight for us. We watched it pass just to the north of us in the clouds and then we watched it touchdown and could see the debris flying as it hit OUR downtown area.  

My first thought was actually a prayer. I prayed a prayer for protection for all those in its path.  

My second thought was another prayer. This time a prayer of thanks. I was thankful that our leaders listened to the warnings from earlier and made the decision to keep our kids at home from school.  

My third thought was in the form of a question. My question was how can I help? I know I wasn’t alone in my thinking.  

I left the Wellness and Aquatics Center on foot and tried to walk to my husband’s office on 9th Street and quickly realized how difficult this would be. It took me well over an hour to make it to the office and I was relieved to see that he and all of his co-workers were safe. My husband and I both knew we had to help. We started walking to our downtown area, as many others did, and started helping.  

This is one of the MANY reasons I LOVE our community. We ALL came together to help.   

I have pictures from the moments right after the storm… the scene is etched in my mind… but they are not what I see when I look at it today. When I see OUR community, I see a community that allowed an event to bring us together. I see a community that used this opportunity for good. I see a Downtown that is vibrant and full of life. I see dreams, I see vision.  

When I see Cullman today…. I see the same thing I have always seen… I see people willing to come together and work for one another. I see hope for the future when I see Cullman.  

But what I really see is our HOME. 

Robin Winton, Office Manager, The Cullman Tribune 

Wednesday, April 27, 2011 was a day that will be remembered for many years to come. I was at The  

Cullman Tribune office along with my daughter. Due to the weather reports predicting very ominous weather that day we stayed tuned in to the television and radio station.  

After the early morning tornado warnings in Hanceville and Holly Pond, it made me uneasy for the rest of the day. Then in the afternoon not long before 3 p.m. we were placed under a tornado warning and a tornado emergency and I watched it on the tower cam on ABC33/40 coming into the city of Cullman.  

I remember I ran up front and locked the front door, which I believe might have kept the door from being blown off. Just shortly after that the lights blinked off and on and then stayed off and we climbed under a table and it felt and sounded like a train was coming through the building. It was such an eerie   sound and feeling as the tornado came through.  

After the tornado passed by, I came up front and walked outside and noticed all the damage at the business next door and across the street. After that I walked outback and the steel radio tower was twisted and laying across the alley. Thankfully it didn’t come down on the building.  

I imagine a lot of people were nervous about stormy weather for quite some time after that day.  

Kenny Culpeper, Chief of the Cullman Police Department 

Myself and captain J.P. White were stationed just west of I65 looking to the southwest. We saw the tornadoes as it came across the interstate.  

We paralleled it as we drove into town on Highway 278. It finally was in the downtown area a block south of us. I started to check damaged buildings in the 2nd Ave. southeast area when a radio call question snapped me out of the first responder mode into the ICS (incident command system). From that point on it was a lot of long days and nights.  

I have always felt fortunate that CPD is a strong participant in the Alabama Mutual Aid System, seventy percent of our officers had been on deployments to the gulf for hurricane damage prior to the tornadoes. We knew what to do and how to work in a disaster with other agencies. Our strong relationship with Cullman Fire, EMA and the Sheriff’s Dept. was invaluable as well. 

Gary Marchman, Cullman County Commission  

I was on my way to Wallace State College that morning. I arrived near the College at the same time the storm hit. There was very little traffic but it was like bomb had exploded with debris laying everywhere. I immediately began to try and help anyone and did not see anyone who had been severely injured.   

We had to be cautious because of downed power lines and debris everywhere. Later that morning and on into that evening I remember listening to the radio and watching the news about all the tornadoes that had hit this are and the destruction they caused.   

Looking at it now, 10 years later we can be reminded of the resilience of our community and the blessing we have received. My prayer is for God to continue to bless this County. 

Dale Greer, Cullman Economic Development director  

I actually was in South Alabama when the tornado struck Cullman.  Received a call from a friend who said TV was showing a tornado bearing down on Cullman at that moment. I instantly phoned my wife, Larraine, who was under her desk at work at the Henderson Walton Women’s Center Office when she answered the phone.  

I cannot tell you how helpless I felt talking to her with the storm devastating sections of Cullman. The electricity actually went out while we were talking on the phone, but within minutes the tornado had passed and I knew she was safe. 

Tornadoes were still extremely active in North Alabama and returning home was not a wise option that afternoon or evening. I traveled back to Cullman the next morning with generators and other supplies for my family and friends with the knowledge that electricity was probably going to be out in Cullman for several days.   

I was actually named the city’s public information officer for the storm when I arrived back in Cullman. Susan Eller and I coordinated daily updates out of the Cullman Economic Development Office to media and social media on all aspects of the recovery including locations for food, water, phone charging stations, power restoration, reporting of property damage, listing work areas where volunteers were needed, responding to media, etc. 

I remember being impressed with the coordination efforts of police, fire, EMA, local governments, utilities, service organizations and volunteers. I know I am failing to acknowledge others who helped, but that tornado brought out the best in many people. It still makes me proud of how everyone pitched in to help their neighbors, friends, family and total strangers.    

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