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BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WIAT) —Pratt City still bears the scars of the April 27, 2011 tornado.
Although there is a new Pratt City Library and the Birmingham Fire Station 18 has been replaced, the number of vacant lots that sit where homes once stood is a sign that more can be done to bring the historic Birmingham neighborhood back to its prime.
Today, One Pratt sits as a centerpiece in the community, just waiting for all the pieces to fall into place. The One Pratt development is a park and community gathering space similar in design to Railroad Park in downtown Birmingham. Former Birmingham Mayor William Bell had hoped One Pratt would bring similar investment to small businesses and residential living in Pratt City.
“What I’m grateful for is to see projects like One Pratt come about because this is a symbol to people that we have not given up on them or their community, that we want to bring a touch of Railroad Park to this location,” said Bell, who is running for mayor this summer. “We want everyone to know that we were just as committed to this community as we were to do the downtown.”
Rebuilding the community is something Bell said was always part of the plan because of Pratt City’s significance to the city’s history.
“This was an area that used to be part of the mining industry, part of the steel industry,” he said. “You had men who worked in the mine with picks and shovels, no machinery. Their wives welcomed them home each and every day, knowing that they were doing their best to bring resources to the family so they could live and survive in this community.”
Pratt City was built as a town to support those mining and steel industries that were already in decline by the time the 2011 tornado roared through. The tornado caused widespread damage across Pratt City with the the North Pratt area, Smithfield Estates and South Pratt all suffering catastrophic damage.
In all, over 2,200 structures were destroyed in Pratt City, representing 83% of the damage done to communities across Birmingham during the storm, according to a City of Birmingham CBDG Action Plan developed after the storm, The tornado also claimed the life of 74-year-old Bessie Brewster. Those who saw the damage to Pratt City that fateful April day remain in awe that the death toll was not higher. A gazebo located at the corner of Hibernian Street and Dugan Avenue was dedicated to Brewster.
Bethel Missionary Baptist Church was also destroyed in the tornado. Reverend Dr. T.L. Lewis took the lead to get the old Scott School set up as a place to coordinate help and volunteers in the immediate aftermath of the storm. Ten years later, there is a new Bethel Missionary Baptist Church.
Rebuilding the community better than what was there before was a promise Bell said he wanted to keep to the people of Pratt City.
“Understanding the strength of character of the individuals who founded this community, I knew there was strength and character still here,” he said. “And that we needed to preserve that.”
Sandy Tell is one of those people with strength in character. She moved to Pratt City in 2007 and can often be found walking up and down Hibernian Street near her home and around Dugan Avenue, near the Gazebo picking up garbage, where she places garbage on the corner so that a city truck picks it up. Tell was there the day of the tornado and remembers it like it was yesterday.
“I got down in my hallway. It did not hit but a few seconds and it was gone. When I opened my door, it was like a bomb had gone off,” Tell said. “The houses were destroyed. These houses that are here in front of me, they weren’t here…a lot of the lots you see that are vacant, those people’s homes were destroyed, and they say they will never move back out here again.”
Some wanted to rebuild their homes, but couldn’t for different reasons. Some were under insured or not insured at all while some lots were too small to be rebuilt, needing to be at least 50 feet to be rebuilt. Bell recalled the challenges those rules created.
“We were trying to get control like if we could get two 25-foot lots and combine them into 50-foot lots. But you may have a situation where someone owned their property, but the property next door, you didn’t have an heir so you couldn’t get a title on it,” he said.
The Pratt City Strategy to Rebuild details some of the challenges the historic community faced in the rebuilding process. It includes some solutions and introduces the Birmingham Land Bank Authority, which was incorporated in 2014.
Bell said some senior citizens were able to stay in the area by moving to the newly built Dugan Avenue Senior Living Apartments.
“These units here we got money from the federal government to do matchings funds. A lot of residents who lost their homes were able to move back into these units and not have a house note or some didn’t have insurance to build back,” he said.
Tell said she likes what is happening in Pratt City right right now.
“The changes now are like new growth, new life now,” she said. “I thank the Lord for the new growth we have in the neighborhood and it takes a while for healing to come when you go through something like that. It really does, but I can see then changes, we’re come back alive, new growth coming. New library, new homes, the community is growing back together and knitting back together again now. I’m so grateful for that.”
Charlotte Gray has lived in Pratt City for 62 years and remembers another tornado from the 1970s, but said it was nothing like the one from a decade ago.
“I had just made it to the closet, but my husband was trying to get the back door closed when the storm come up on him,” Gray said. “He looked like he had seen death. His eyes were so big. I had to ask ‘Are you alright?’”
Gray said prayer has kept her calm in storms since the one from 2011. Ten years later, she would like to see more done to get houses built on the empty lots across Pratt City.
“There is a slow process, and they haven’t really done what they have promised to do, I know we have a change of people in places, but in the meantime, I thought it would have been rebuilt by now,” she said. “We were promised that.”
Gray said she is frustrated about the lack of investment in Pratt Park, which was supposed to be an extension of One Pratt, which she can see from her patio. Her family home borders Hibernian Street and sits just across the street from One Pratt Park. Otherwise, her home is surrounded by empty lots.
“I would love to see houses put back up here, something for the kids,” she said.
“I still would like to see a lot of these vacant lots filled with homes,” he said. “Some people say ‘Well, they did not want to live back in this area because of the tornado.’ As we saw the last couple of weeks, they can hit south of us, they can hit north of us, they can hit west of us, they can hit east of us. Tornadoes do not discriminate against any particular area. So you just have to go on with life and I think it’s imperative upon municipal governments, state governments to show people that we are willing to invest in areas like Pratt City so people will feel comfortable knowing we will make their area better than before.”