It took a sunset and a pink super moon to do it.
My tongue ran across my front teeth, feeling something mildly sharp.
Monday’s climb of Smith Mountain reminded me why I have a chipped tooth — the tornadoes of April 27, 2011. I climbed the firetower to capture what I hoped would be a great sunset.
While waiting for the sun to align with the horizon, I took a gander from the height and there it was. The scar of the tornado that crossed Lake Martin a decade ago.
New Water Farms now stands there in place of Camp Civitan and just around the way the Maxwell Gunter Recreation Area has been rebuilt. Many homes have been rebuilt too.
A decade ago I was working for another newspaper and listening to the news of the day while filing photographs of an Auburn baseball game. The scene from Tuscaloosa was horrific. The television in the pressbox was showing the video of the twister tearing its way through town. There were images of destruction across Birmingham and other parts of northern Alabama and it seemed to be over, but there was still another line headed to Elmore and Tallapoosa counties.
I was living in Auburn but my parents lived in Dadeville. I quickly learned I might want to head to my hometown.
I was stopped between Camp Hill and Dadeville. Power lines were across the U.S. Highway 280. Power was out but I saw people working clearing the road.
It was raining. I was parked in the median. I walked up to Langley Funeral Home. There was a little damage, water in the front foyer.
I moved on. I heard the lake along County Road 34 had been hit. I take Highway 49 South only to be turned around crossing Saugahatchee Creek. Doubling back I see the neighborhood I knew but was blocked off by law enforcement. High school friends grew up there. A former mayor and former sheriff lived there.
I had heard no news there but figured with one road in, first responders were trying to keep storm tourists away. It was right there at Langley Funeral Home. My plan was to move on to County Road 34.
I got to the parking lot of Poplar Dawgs. First responders were setting up a triage station. It was a Wednesday and there was no way to be sure how many people were in their homes in the area. Roads to many homes were blocked. I was hearing word local hospitals were putting people on standby.
Volunteers were walking, chainsaws in hand. Only one way in, walk and cut. A small group of volunteers were able to commandeer a boat and go boat dock to boat dock.
I would early the next morning but first I had to check on family friends. Their pecan orchard was destroyed next to Langley Funeral Home. Their daughters grew up and were close to my sister. Their home was damaged, repairable and they were OK. Then it was on to Highway 34
Now a temporary command center was set up in the parking lot of Lake Martin Baptist Church. Tallapoosa County Sheriff Jimmy Abbett would inform us the only injuries in the area were a couple, one with a broken hip, but we got lucky.
It was a Wednesday and lake season was on pause. Homes were not occupied in April like they would be nine years later during the COVID-19 pandemic. First responders considered themselves lucky at the time knowing many more could have been injured.
I had a chance to get on the water in a friend’s bass boat. He knew marine patrol. We put in at DARE Park and ran across a marine patrol officer who cautioned us about the debris on the water.
We would ease into the area around Camp Civitan seeing it destroyed. Homes twisted and torn from their foundations. Using the boats trolling motor we eased through the debris. A car was in the water, everything was a mess. I was pushing wood that was a wall just the night before from the front of the boat.
A man was on a dock in front of his home on Hilyer Road. Homes nearby were directly in the path. This home was on the edge. The big plate windows of the home were caved in. The roof had fallen. You could see a sofa just sitting there. The man described seeing the tornado approach, the sound of a train. He and his dog survived, huddled on the sofa.
Nearby neighbors were helping with chainsaws. Volunteers were arriving.
We ventured into Blue Creek. From the water the damage at Sims, Impy, Connell, Hickory Hill, Bow and Fox roads could be seen. Closets were opened to the elements with contents still in place, that’s if anything was still standing. Homeowners were sorting through what was left. More neighbors and volunteers were arriving to help.
I would venture back to County Road 34 getting through the checkpoint. From the road trees were twisted off halfway up, others ripped from the ground with roots still attached. A machine shop was ripped open by the violent winds moving a two-ton sheet metal break a few feet.
Going back to Auburn I stopped by the neighborhood I didn’t get in the night before.
I found the home of former Tallapoosa County Sheriff and Dadeville Mayor Joe Smith. His home was OK. Trees were laid down around it. Just a few hundred yards away was the home of my high school principal Jimmy Childers. The tornado the night before left it standing but twisted on its foundation.
Just down the road was the home of Katherine Blanche Massa. Massa was the single fatality in Tallapoosa County that night, but just moments before the same tornado took the lives of six Elmore County residents.
It wouldn’t be my only encounter with the wreckage of Alabama’s 62 tornadoes from April.
The next week I would be summoned to Birmingham. The company owning the newspaper I was working for also owned television stations. One in the south Florida market had a helicopter. It was in Birmingham assisting another company owned television station.
I was to take aerial photographs.
The pilot made a decision early on to avoid Tuscaloosa. “Too much air traffic,” he said.
We made our way to Phil Campbell and Hackelburg.
From the air I saw a car sitting in the middle of a Wrangler Jean textile plant. I saw tents being set up at the end of a runway in Hamilton. We buzzed the hangar. There was no power to call in and see if they had fuel.
The manager quickly ran out. A generator aided in the fueling. The fuel allowed us to stay in the area a little longer and also to circle Cullman.
The tornado twisted homes on the foundations there too.
Everywhere help was coming from neighbors and volunteers. Everyone was working side by side. Wealth, color and age did not matter. Giving care was the mission even if it was just a conversation.
Somewhere along the way in throwing my head from side to side trying to take photographs I chipped a tooth. A dentist would fix it but it chips again from time to time.
A tornado struck Wetumpka two years ago. I was there. Neighbors and volunteers were there too helping yet again.
My tooth chipped again. I like to think of the chipped tooth as a reminder.
It reminds me there are still good people in the world. It reminds me people are willing to help strangers.
That is all good and I’m hoping my tooth will chip more often, but not after a disaster.
Instead I hope it chips because of the good deeds I see others doing for their neighbors just because it’s a good thing to do.