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HACKLEBURG, Ala. (WIAT) — One of the strongest tornadoes that hit Alabama on April 27, 2011, was the EF-5 tornado that hit the small town of Hackleburg in Marion County.
The storm was three-quarters of a mile wide with winds up to 210 miles per hour. The tornado touched down shortly after 3 p.m., shattering many lives.
David Smith remembers the day like it was yesterday. He stepped out on the porch of his home to check the sky shortly before the tornado hit. He said it was so dark that some of the street lights turned on.
“Everybody I talked with said this thing happened quick,” Smith said. “It formed in a hurry. The sky just got dark all a sudden, and all heck broke loose.”
Smith took cover under a bumper pool table on the first floor of his home.
“I bearhugged that table leg. I said, ‘Buddy, if I get sucked out of here, maybe I won’t go very far if I hang on to this table,” he said.
Smith said he never felt the suction, but that he took a beating as debris flew at him. He survived, but had wood and debris embedded in his back and blood streaming from his head. Crawling out the place he had called home for 32 years, he realized his house was a total loss.
Kenny Hallmark was the police chief for Hackleburg back in 2011. As the tornado approached, he tried to warn as many people as possible to take cover. He ended up abandoning the car and riding out the storm in a drainage ditch. Hallmark said it took him two hours to clear enough debris to get back to the middle of downtown. He said that was the day, the entire landscape of his beloved town changed.
By the time the tornado lifted, approximately 75% of the homes and buildings in Hackleburg were gone with all but two businesses in ruins. Hackleburg School was also destroyed. The biggest loss of all was the 18 people died that day. The little town with a population of about 1,500 people was devastated.
Ten years later, Hackleburg is much like other communities hit hard by the April 27 tornadoes. You’ll find new homes, new storm shelters and new businesses. Hackleburg rebuilt its school bigger and better. Though many people left for good following the tornado, most stayed and restarted their lives.
Hallmark credits those who stayed with rebuilding the town’s new identity.
“We lost 200 people who didn’t come back, and around 200 homes that didn’t rebuild. But the ones who did rebuild built better homes,” he said. “That helped our tax base, too. The homes were worth more so our land tax came in better. Once people saw people were buying in and coming back now, our population has grown better now.”
The people of Hackleburg understand that every storm has a silver lining that could take years to uncover. A brand new school and new homes weren’t in the picture 10 years ago. Out of the worst of times, neighbors carried on with big goals for their hometown. When asked if any of this would have been possible without the storm, Hallmark said he didn’t believe it would have.
“We had good leaders in office at the time with good vision, but I don’t think it would have been economically feasible to do some of the stuff we’ve done without the tornado coming through,” he said.
Ironically, it was just five days before the storm that the police department went to Eufala for disaster preparedness training for the first time in department history. So they were more prepared than ever for the storm and the search and rescue efforts that followed.
However, there is still grief. There is still fear during storms, but despite going through the worst of it, the people know how to support one another during the difficult times. In the days after the storm, they rallied around each other. They turned out to cheer on the Hackleburg High School baseball team when they went to the playoffs less than a week after the storm. They made sure the high school seniors had a graduation ceremony in their stadium, despite the destruction that was all around them. They held each other up during the funerals and nursed the injured back to health.
The town was almost wiped off the map, yet nothing could take away the spirit of the community.