Memories of tornado show what Cordova once was

Special Reports

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CORDOVA, Ala. (WIAT) — An old picture of downtown Cordova hangs on the wall at Jeff and Von’s restaurant. It’s an aerial picture from 2009, two years before the storm that wiped much of the small town away.

It’s a reminder of the past and a symbol of hope for the future.

“This house is gone, all of this, all of this is gone,” Melody Dawkins said as she pointed to various spots in the picture.

Dawkins works at the restaurant, which used to be called the Rebel Queen. That building’s slab sits a couple hundred yards down the street from Jeff and Von’s along a stretch that features little more than foundations. Nearly everything there was destroyed by a tornado that hit the town on April 27, 2011. Jeff and Von’s was one of the few businesses that rebuilt.

“There’s very little left of what was downtown,” Dawkins said as she glanced back at the picture.

The second storm that day was the most destructive, hitting late that afternoon and ripping through the middle of downtown. Four people died in the storm, including Jackson Vanhorn, Dawkins’ cousin. Ten years later, she still gets emotional talking about it.

“He actually saved everybody that was under (the house). The house landed on his shoulders and kept the house up,” she said, stopping to apologize for the tears that were welling up in her eyes.

A memorial at the corner of Main Street and Mill Street bears Vanhorn’s name, as well as the names of other tornado victims. It’s displayed underneath a flag across the street from the building that houses the new city hall and police department, both of which were rebuilt in 2015.

Police Chief Billy Dill goes to work in the new building every day. In 2011, he was working for the city’s street department. On that fateful afternoon, he was part of a crew that climbed on top of city hall to put tarps over parts of the roof that were damaged during that morning’s first tornado.

“Us guys that were working had no idea that there were any more storms, that anything else was coming our way,” Dill said. “But we were getting down, that’s when we heard, hey, there’s more storms coming. Let’s call it.”

Dill was able to get home and find a safe place, but just barely.

“You really can’t fathom what would have happened, as in what kind of disaster we would have been in the middle of,” he said. “Considering the path of the storm came right through the middle of downtown, if we had delayed 15 minutes, I believe there could have been definite more loss of life.”

Each year, the Cordova Fire Department remembers the lives that were lost, flying a flag above town on its ladder truck. Most of the buildings that were lost have never been repaired, but Dawkins remains hopeful they will be someday. It’s part of the reason she treasures the picture on the wall at Jeff and Von’s.

“As a reminder of what we were and what we’ve become after and where we’re going in the future,” she said.

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