The days following the April 27 tornadoes were filled with many overwhelming moments. For Marion County farmer Gary Weatherly, those moments came quickly and often.
Weatherly emerged from his storm cellar to find his house completely untouched by the storm. One glance toward the west brought on one of those overwhelming moments.
"I looked toward the west and it was all gone," Weatherly said.
From his yard, Weatherly saw his two closest neighbors’ homes were completely destroyed. One of those neighbors, Jeanette Tittle, had been in the cellar with Weatherly and his family. But the other neighbor, Edward Sartin and his wife, Brenda, were unaccounted for. Their home sat on the western edge of Weatherly’s property, which borders the Tittle place.
Weatherly and his wife, Carolyn, hopped in their pick-up to take Tittle to see what was left of her place.
Fortunately, he received a cell phone call from Sartin saying they were okay.
The road to Tittle’s home was impassable as trees and other debris covered US Hwy 278. Weatherly picked up the Sartins and headed back to his house just in time to head to the cellar again as a funnel cloud passed just to the south of his farm.
"I was relieved to find Edward," Weatherly said.
Sartin is more than a neighbor. He has worked on the farm for Weatherly for 25 years.
As darkness fell on the night of April 27, many neighbors were venturing out for the first time. The highway had been cleared by rescue and road crews headed to Hackleburg to offer assistance there.
Everyone was relieved to learn no one in the immediate community had been injured during the tornado.
Communication had been cut off with the power and phone lines earlier in the afternoon. No news from other parts of the state was available. Cell phones worked for a short while, long enough for Weatherly’s granddaughters, Carrie and Cassie Webb, to call him from Florence. But the cell towers went down within a few hours of the storm.
The Weatherlys offered rooms for Tittle and the Sartins to sleep. Everyone went to sleep hoping to wake up from a bad dream.
The morning of April 28 brought more overwhelming moments.
Faced with the enormity of the situation and dozens of people who came to help, Weatherly tried to wrap his head around what needed to be done. Fortunately, he didn’t have to make many of those decisions. Volunteers found jobs that needed to be done and set about doing them.
Priority one was building a temporary fence to keep Weatherly’s 40 or so Charolais cows from roaming to the highway or through a newly-planted corn field.
Once the cattle were contained, neighbors and volunteers with chain-saws cleared fence rows of trees and debris. It took several days just to get to the fence in some places.
Fields of Debris
In particular, one volunteer was bothered by the amount of debris in the 50-acre unplanted field across the road from Weatherly’s home. Vance Hutton, who is the preacher for the Double Springs Church of Christ, organized groups of volunteers to walk the field and remove any debris.
This was not a simple task. The field was walked over half a dozen times and debris can still be found.
Hutton was worried Weatherly’s crop would be delayed if the field was not cleaned up quickly.
Weatherly was able to plant his soybeans with only a slight delay.
The field between Weatherly’s and Sartin’s homes was littered with debris as well. In places, though, the field had been scrubbed clean by the tornado. Corn seedlings were ripped from the ground. Weatherly was able to replant the bare spots several weeks later.
In addition to helping clean up, volunteers also lined up to help feed the workers.
"We fed close to 100 people several days," Carolyn said. "All of the food and drinks were donated, too. We didn’t buy anything ourselves."
Besides groups from the area, large groups from the Shoals came to work on the farm and at the Tittle’s and Sartins’ places. In particular, the Wood Avenue and the Valdosta Churches of Christ were on hand to help.
Cub Scouts Lend a Hand
The local group of Cub Scouts came to help with the field cleanup. Pack 56 Cubmaster John Sims said he wanted the boys to learn to help their neighbors in a time of need.
"We try to teach the boys to observe what’s going on in their communities and do what they can to help," Sims said. "I thought this would be a good opportunity for them to see some of the damage caused by the tornadoes and show them how they could help."
The boys worked for hours walking the field and picking up debris.
"This type of project teaches them to think of others and what they can do for someone besides themselves," Sims explained. "When the boys pass by this field and see the soybeans growing, they will know they had a part in making that crop happen."
Susie Sims is a freelance writer from Haleyville.