From flattened to booming: How a Cullman diner found a silver lining in the 2011 tornado

Special Reports

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CULLMAN, Ala. (WIAT) — For 10 years, there have been hundreds of stories told across Alabama about the tornadoes that swept through the state on April 27, 2011.

In Cullman, an EF-4 tornado tore through downtown, flattening many businesses and leaving stretches of the city unrecognizable in the aftermath of the storm. One of those who suffered the worst was Kitty Crawford, owner of the Busy Bee Café, who said the storm changed her respect for Mother Nature.

Kitty Crawford recounting when the tornado swept over her, injuring her and destroying her business.

“[I was] waiting for the storm to pass to go home because I let my employees go home early because of the fear of the storms,” Crawford said. “I was standing right there at the cash register getting the money out of the register and up and get ready to close up.”

Before the tornado came, neighboring business owners begged Crawford to leave, warning her of how close the storm was. Crawford brushed off their words, deciding to ride it out instead. Why did she stay?

“Because we always have storms, and I didn’t think… I didn’t want to drive in it so I was just waiting,” she said. “I never realized it would pass right over me.”

By the time Crawford decided to leave, it was too late.

“[I] looked up and I can see it coming across the bridge and I didn’t have time to do anything so I just came under the counter as far as I can get,” she said.

Roughly 90 people were treated for injuries that were not life threatening. Crawford was the worst of those injuries, suffering a broken pelvis and a hurt back.

“The building exploded and it was over just as fast as it hit,” she said. “I was under the building— you know with bricks, cinderblocks, everything.”

First responders used a tabletop as a stretcher to get Crawford out of the rubble. Like many others that day, she gained a newfound respect for storm warnings.

Photos hung in Busy Bee Café depicting the tornado damage

“We kind of get to taking things for granted and we think it’s never going to happen to us,” said Phyllis Little, director of the Cullman County EMA. “It’s always somebody else, [and] when it happens to you, you see people come out like ants out of an anthill. Working, moving debris… for first responders to get in and out. That changes your view completely. You do appreciate it and your neighbors a lot more.”

Little, who has been with the Cullman County EMA since 1995, said that the 2011 tornado was a weather event she would never forget. Following the tornado, she and her department worked around the clock for a week straight.

“We didn’t go home for seven days,” she said.

Of all of the destruction, damage, and devastation she saw that day, Little said it was the unwavering kindness that she remembers the most.

“What I remember completely was not just the first responders, but the neighbors who came out of the homes that had major damage to them,” she said. “If they knew that they were OK and they were checking on their neighbors.”

Little saw parts of the city destroyed and later rebuilt. For her, the tornados didn’t just change Cullman, but the people as well.

“It was almost total devastation in that area,” she said. “We lost churches. We lost businesses. We lost historic homes and some of that you’ll never get back.”

After Crawford recovered, the Busy Bee Café began to rebuild. She kept true to the original building’s layout and also added TVs to the diner so they can watch the local news when the weather takes a turn. Now, business is booming.

Busy Bee Café, April 2021

“Something good comes out of something bad because I wouldn’t have this new building, new everything,” Crawford said. “And now, we have more business than we’ve ever had.”

If you pay the Busy Bee Cafe a visit, you’ll notice several mementos from the tornado throughout the restaurant. Above the cash register is an original menu that was blown away 70 miles during the storm. Later on, someone from Hollywood, Alabama mailed it back.

Kitty Crawford said the menu is a reminder of all they’ve been through and how far they’ve come.

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