Rebound: Cullman’s tornado recovery makes huge leaps

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Demolished buildings and debris mark the path of the EF-4 tornado through downtown Cullman. (Photo courtesy of NWS Huntsville) 

CULLMAN, Ala. – The large multi-vortex EF-4 tornado that plowed through downtown Cullman on the afternoon of April 27, 2011 did massive damage along its path. An estimated $13.5 million in damage occurred in the city, $5.5 million to city government properties and facilities alone. Every business was closed for some amount of time, as the larger system that spawned 199 tornadoes on that day left the entire north Alabama service area of the Tennessee Valley Authority without power. An estimated 180 businesses sustained some amount of damage, among which 69 saw their facilities destroyed. The economic impact of lost and closed businesses has never been fully determined.  

Cullman Economic Development Agency director Dale Greer told The Tribune, “There was no electricity in Cullman County or the entire 13-county TVA service area in Alabama after the storms. TVA lost sections of every transmission line serving the state. TVA says there had never been a time in history when there was no electrical service in the TVA region of Alabama.” 

Almost as soon as the storm passed, though, people hit the streets and began reclaiming their city.  

Now, Mayor Woody Jacobs recalled, “I was standing outside off of HWY 31 near Merchants Bank when the tornado came over. Once it passed, I remember saying to the folks around me at the time, ‘Well, I’m not sure that was too bad.’ But we quickly saw that it was bad and sprang into action. I wasn’t with the City then, but as part of my job at the time, I and the folks I worked with began helping the ambulance service up the road, because they were hit. Then we spent the next several weeks helping out where we could, like most everyone else in Cullman County did at the time. The people of Cullman really banded together during that time!” 

While businesses were shut down, volunteers and professionals poured into Cullman and Cullman County from across the southeast to assist with recovery efforts. The Alabama Emergency Management Agency (AEMA) estimated that Alabama National Guard troops arrived in Cullman to begin security operations within 35 minutes of the storm’s passing. Cullman Police Chief Kenny Culpepper, seeing that his department’s vehicles were going to run out of fuel with gas stations down, called Hanceville Mayor Kenneth Nail who, although his town had its own woes, arranged for two tanker trucks supplied by the Alabama Surplus Property Division (with which Hanceville often does business) to deliver fuel for police and emergency responders within 24 hours. The state agency also provided heavy equipment to Cullman for debris removal. 

From across the country, churches, clubs, civic groups and others came to help with clean up and provisions for victims. In one case noted by AEMA, a family from Michigan on its way to the beach stopped in Cullman for several days to help streets. 

Rebuilding bigger and better 

As electric service was restored in business districts and neighborhoods, the economy began rebounding. The need to house and feed those involved in the recovery process, along with money spent on building materials to repair, replace or rebuild damaged structures, meant that large sums were coming into the area. 

Local businesses made their own investments with aid from the City. 

Greer shared, “The City implemented a new façade program offering grants to city businesses to help them recover. A total of 87 grants were awarded, totaling nearly $500,000. That seed money resulted in nearly $10 million capital investment from the private sector. 

He continued, 

“The community has rebounded from the unprecedented damage and today is one of the leading counties in Alabama for new and expanding industry, retail development, restaurant growth, housing development and job creation. Sales tax revenue is up. The local economy is booming.” 

The city’s current social and recreational slate includes events begun as a result of the tornado: 

  •  Celebrate Cullman invited people back into the downtown area to shop during the summer following the tornado and has become a popular social event.   
  • Rock the South was born as a celebration for the community on the first anniversary of the storm. Since that time, it has grown to become one of the top festivals of its kind in the nation, drawing visitors from across the country and even internationally. 

Adding those to a tradition of events, Cullman now offers an array of activities for everyone, including: 

  •  Oktoberfest 
  • Strawberry Festival 
  • Dinner on First 
  • 2nd Fridays 
  • Christmas in Cullman 
  • Cullman Christmas Parade and tree lighting 

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W.C. Mann

craig@cullmantribune.com