From Tragedy to Triumph: a look at the March 3 tornadoes one year later

From Tragedy to Triumph: a look at the March 3 tornadoes one year later

The storms on March 3, 2019, wreaked death and destruction across a majority of the southeastern United States. On that Sunday afternoon, no less than 41 tornadoes touched down in the southeast within a mere six-hour span. The strongest tornado, a deadly EF4, tore through the communities of Beauregard and Smiths Station, Ala., and then crossed the river to hit Talbotton, Georgia. 

For Smiths Station, the hardest hit areas were along Lee Roads 318, 319, and 294, the latter being behind West Smiths Station Elementary. The school lost part of its roof and sustained other serious damage. The playground had been utterly destroyed – slides and benches twisted like foil, trees uprooted, tossed, and six basketball goals with thick, steel poles, had been forcefully bent downward toward the ground.

In its wake, the tornado left 23 people dead in Beauregard; 103 more were left injured and many became homeless, left with nothing but the clothes on their backs. While Smiths Station residents survived, they still suffered greatly and some of the areas that were hit still bear heavy evidence of the tornado’s razored path – trees snapped and bent, empty lots where houses once stood, shattered signs, and houses still under repair. A year later, people still bear the emotional scars. Some, especially the children, struggle with symptoms of PTSD and are afraid when they hear sirens. For that reason, the city of Smiths Station decided to observe this first anniversary with a somber moment of silence.

In the immediate aftermath Smiths Station Mayor F.L. “Bubba” Copeland was leaving church when he began receiving notifications on his phone. Copeland didn’t know the severity of the situation until he saw the damage himself. First, he called his team and began delegating, trying to get boots on the ground to help those affected, he fielded calls, and began slowly making his way through the area to assess the damage and to get help for those in need. Many of the roads were blocked by fallen trees and other debris. What he saw looked like a war zone. But in days to come when he looked out across the soccer field, he saw diverse camps of volunteers, peacefully coexisting.

“There were about 150 Muslims having morning prayer on quilts; there were some Jewish Rabbis having prayer,” Copeland said. “There were Methodist and Baptist ministers; the LGBTQ community was there…over a thousand people right here, sleeping everywhere.” Copeland said he was amazed at the level of unity he witnessed.

“I said God, you’ve got to explain this to me,” Copeland said. “I kept praying for an answer.” Copeland said it was that Thursday, while he was in the shower, he got a reply. The answer came suddenly. “Did I not tell you I am?” Copeland said he understood. “God is the God of everything that walks on the face of this planet, whether they be Muslim, Gay Straight Black, White…He is the God of everything.”

Copeland witnessed the differences that once divided people in the community fall away. “Every inhibition we carry around with us was dropped,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re fat, if you’re poor, if you’re dumb, or smart. You can do something. You can get a shovel or a rake and start cleaning up. You can tote wood or help feed.”

He has not stopped thinking about the unity he witnessed that day.

“On a daily basis, you turn on the news and you hear division, division, division. But through that tragedy, every single person, no matter what level they were – rich, poor, black, white, gay, straight, Jew, Gentile, Catholic, or Protestant – they all came together for humankind. It led me to believe that no matter what happens in this world, we’re not as divided as people think we are. In an effort for us to be successful as a people, we all have to rise together.”

Another quality Copeland witnessed was generosity. He said there were at least a thousand hungry volunteers that needed to be fed. 

“It was the craziest thing in the world. Food trucks came from all over,” he said. “They would just pull off the road and start cooking.” 

Food choices ranged from tacos, to catfish, to burgers and hotdogs, and others. No one went hungry. Out of all the bad, came some good. 

“I’d say we went from tragedy to triumph within 72 hours,” Copeland said. “Of course it was a mess, but we came together. When I say triumph…everybody knows their neighbor. We care a lot more now, and I still see to this day people checking on each other. Now, there is more of a sense of community, especially on the roads that were affected.”

Copeland said he hopes to write a book about it all someday.

Russell County, others stepped up

That stormy Sunday, Director of Russell County EMA Bob Franklin was out of town. He wasn’t able to get back until that Thursday. Lee County sent a request for assistance under the mutual aid agreement. Franklin, Deputy Director David Martin, and Operations Specialist Samantha Cato went to Lee County and gave immediate assistance. Martin went to Beauregard and Cato went to Smiths Station to help coordinate relief efforts. Franklin teamed up with Lee County EMA and  worked out of the Emergency Operations Center in Smiths Station that had been set up roadside. They performed critical assessments to manage resources and better target people and areas with the greatest need and  to get help to everyone who needed it. They had the help of the Alabama Forestry Department and other organizations. Franklin even pulled in other EMA directors from other nearby counties, such as Butler and Elmore – from all around the state, just whoever could get away and come assist.

“What happens in those events, large scale events like that, is you’re pretty much overwhelmed,” Franklin said. “You have enough personnel and staff to handle day-to-day operations, but when you start getting into nearly 24 hours a day, seven days a week, you just don’t have enough people. Whether it’s Lee county or Russell County or whatever county. It’s so overwhelming to the local EMAs that we have a mutual aid compact. We go and assist each other.”

Franklin said each county has plans for such things as logistics, donation management, volunteer management, and the list goes on. 

“All of that stuff is already in place. You just have to activate their plans and work with them on what their needs are at that moment,” Franklin said. “It’s always fluid. It’s not going to be step-by-step. It’s a guideline to go by and you have to vary from that depending on the circumstances.”

As for resources, Franklin said they just had to make the best with what they  had on hand.

“It’s really easy to look back and say I wish I had done this, or  I should have done that, but it’s a lot harder to do those when you’re having to make those decisions right now,” he said. 

As for the support his team and  Lee County got during that time, Franklin said he really appreciates the community we live in and the support that the community gave to that event.

“Without that support, the donations, and manpower we got out of the community, it wouldn’t be as successful of a recovery as it has been,” Franklin said.

Overwhelmed by generosity

Jeff Garrett, Associate Pastor of Education at Smiths Station Baptist Church, was home when he got the call from Pastor David Kees asking him to administer assistance to church members who wanted to do something to help people affected by the tornado. He had no idea what was to come in the days after the storm. 

“We didn’t know it was an effort until it became an effort,” Garrett said. “It was just some people in our church who wanted to gather some necessities and get those to the people in need. That’s all that it was for us, for our church, because we didn’t know what was going on.”

Garrett said the church decided to open up the gym to any of its members who wanted to bring water or diapers or just necessities. 

“That’s when my most busy week began,” Garrett said, laughing. “We didn’t even know how we were going to get the meager supplies we had to where they needed to be going…More of our members started spreading through social media, ‘Yeah, we have a church where you can drop your things off at the gym.’ People started dropping anything they thought might be needed.” Garrett said people were even dropping off old clothes and furniture. 

“We started looking like a thrift store,” he said. “Everybody wanted to help. Before we knew it, people who were in need were showing up. Folks found us.”

Garrett said the church’s location played an important role. 

“That helped us, having been in that physical location for so long,” he said. “We acted upon what was going on. People just showed up at our door to help.” 

He described that by the second day a food truck showed up, followed by others ready to help, shovels in hand. 

The phones started ringing, overwhelming the secretaries. That’s when Garrett said he became the point person for handling relief efforts. 

“I was too overwhelmed to be scared,” he said. “It was all this information coming in from everywhere.”

Seeing that Garrett and church members were already in the process of collecting donations and helping people, the mayor asked if they could use the church in bigger relief efforts. They used the gym to collect donations, and the Youth Services Building became the base for volunteers. 

“It was a great partnership. Our church people were pleased to be able to help, just like anybody else would,” Garrett said. “We had volunteers from all over. The local Publix sent folks down in their green shirts to help. The Mormon church sent some folks. We had some Muslim ladies dressed to work. People came from everywhere.”

They ended up moving donations into a huge warehouse, which The Cajun Navy managed. 

“They did an excellent job,” Garrett said. “They were very organized.”

Garrett said The Cajun Navy went the extra mile during a time that would have normally been the highlight of a high school senior’s life. Prom. 

“They took in donations of prom dresses and tuxes. They had them cleaned and kids who didn’t have anything could go to the prom. As an older guy whose kids are already out of the house, I would have never thought of that,” he said. “It meant everything to those families. It brought some normalcy back.”

Garrett said the lessons learned were many. 

“You’re going to have so much (donations) come in, deal with it right then,” he said. “Make it easy for people to come get what they need. It’s a stop so they can get what they need and move to the next place to get what they need there.” 

Garrett said the church and his members now have a heightened sense of awareness. 

“It made us want to do more to help,” he said. 

They got a list of things still needing to be done from City Hall. Today, there’s plenty still a lot on the list, but Smiths Station Baptist Church and its members are helping to make that list shorter. 

Garrett said the church has formed policies and procedures out of lessons taken from the event and are now prepared.

People are still good

On the afternoon of March 3, Vickie Jones was busy working at her job as a Certified Nursing Assistant when the tornado struck. Her son, then 22 years old, had just left the trailer where they lived together. Moments later, the tornado had turned their trailer into a twisted pile of trash. Thankfully, her son had made it to the safety of his grandmother’s house next door just in the nick of time and was unharmed.

Jones rushed home to find she and her son had lost everything, and her mother’s house had sustained heavy damage. The only thing left to do was to sift through the rubble and try to salvage anything of importance. The next day she did just that, searching for her children’s senior portraits, the only possessions she couldn’t replace. She eventually found them, mostly intact. She still has to have a tear in one of them repaired, but that is a small problem in retrospect.

“I lost a lot. I lost all my jewelry. Now, when I go to the store, it doesn’t interest me to buy jewelry,” Jones said. “I used to love to get my earrings. It wasn’t expensive jewelry. It was Avon and stuff like that, and I had a lot of it.” Jones said since the tornado she is no longer materialistic.

Jones took her son and 86-year-old mother and left the house to stay with relatives, planning only to be gone until the roof and repairs were done. They would not be able to return home until August. It took more than five months to get the house completed due to various roadblocks, such as dealing with insurance and other difficulties. They got through it all with help. Jones said everyone was very supportive.

“The mayor was good, and the Red Cross was excellent. Everybody was good,” Jones said.

Today, the lot where the trailer stood remains empty, the dirt now filled in with vibrant, green grass as spring settles in to stay awhile. Jones decided not to replace the trailer. Instead, she moved in next door with her elderly mother who needs help getting around.

Jones said this experience taught her that there is still good in the world. “People are still good. You see more evil but the people don’t talk about the good like they ought to talk about it,” she said. “People are good. They didn’t have to do all the stuff they did. They came from their hometowns to help us. It was outstanding for somebody to put their life on hold to come down here and help somebody they didn’t know.”

Rowell not back yet

At 86, Rowell is no stranger to loss. One of twelve siblings, she has already lost six of them and said most of those left living have forgotten about her. She is glad to have her immediate family and excited about another great-grandchild soon to be born. She and her daughter, Vickie Jones, spoke about returning home after five months of being away.

“It was fine when we got back,” Jones said, speaking on the condition of the house.

“I ain’t got back yet,” Rowell said. She is still feeling lost and knows there are some things she’ll never get back. She had an old piano in good condition. It had been moved out of the house while work was being done and someone stole it.

“I didn’t give them permission to take it,” she insisted.

But Rowell said she could no longer play it anyway and hopes a child is using it for practice, that some good came out of something bad. She knows it can happen. She has seen it in Smiths Station many times. With all that she has been through, Rowell refuses to let any of it dim her light.

“God told us to let our light shine,” she said. “If Man puts his lamp under a bucket, it will smother it out.”

Rowell also experienced a blessing in that the damage caused by the tornado started a search for her property deed. The 500 acres of land came into her family through her grandfather, a former slave freed in 1869 who had become a sharecropper. City Hall found the deed, but also discovered a critically bad clerical error that had a stranger in Phenix City inheriting the property. With the help of the mayor, Rowell had the error corrected. If it had not been for the tornado, her family really would have lost everything.

Luckily, in the days and months after the storm, Rowell and her family had all the help they needed to get back on their feet. 

“People were good to us,” her daughter said. “They gave her (Rowell) the living room set, the dining set, and at Christmas, they gave us a Christmas tree and decorations.”

A year later, people who were once strangers but now friends still come by or call to check on the family. Rowell is always happy to see them.