Alabama Tornado April 27, 2011 – Disaster hits close to home

in Images, Photo Essay, Weather

It’s early morning on April 28, 2011 and the smell of pine consumes the air. All I hear are the sounds of chainsaws buzzing from all directions. The dirt road I walk along was covered by a dense forest yesterday. This morning however, there is only blue sky.

It’s been two days since I’ve slept, yet I am not the least bit tired. Maybe it’s the adrenalin or just the shock of seeing complete devastation. I’ve seen it many times before, but not in my own backyard and not under these circumstances. Just a few hours ago, I was climbing through a web of fallen trees and debris searching for a cabin that was no longer there.

The day before you could see no sky.

The day before you could see no sky.

Chainsaws can be heard in all directions

Chainsaws can be heard in all directions

On April 27, 2011 one of the largest tornado outbreaks in Alabama history swept through the state. As of this post there are over 230 deaths in Alabama alone. Tragically two of the deaths were the mother and aunt of a good friend of mine, David Woodall.

Earlier that day my wife, David and I were chasing a tornado near Birmingham when we learned of a tornado heading toward his mother’s cabin on Lake Martin. We immediately turned south and headed back to her cabin.

After several hours of of dodging more tornadoes we finally arrived at a road block near Lake Martin. With a little persuasion they allowed us to continue at our own risk. We managed to find our way around downed power lines and trees to the road where David’s mother lived. Several hundred yards before reaching the cabin we could go no further. Massive trees blocked the road and we had to continue on foot.

It was around midnight and we began climbing through the web of tangled trees trying to find the cabin. There was no road, no signs and no trees standing. Though David had been to the cabin thousands of times, he could not recognize where we were or where to go.

Along with a few friends and search and rescue teams we spent much of the early morning hours searching for his mother and aunt. My only light was a small LED flashlight and an iPhone. The search team setup a huge work light but it was too far away to cast any light near our search area. Unfortunately, the cabin took a direct hit from an EF-4 tornado and was completely blown away. Around 2:30 a.m. the search team found his mother. I proceeded out of the devastation to tell David using the eerie glow of the work light to find my way out. When daylight broke searchers found his aunt.

It’s taken me a week to decide about how to post these images, and I came to the conclusion to present them as I normally would. Photographs record a moment in history that will never occur again. Generally most people have pictures of birthdays, kids playing, and happier times. But life is not always happy and unfortunately can be tragic. “Falling Man” is a good example. As horrific as the image is, it reminds us of what happened on September 11, 2001.

I went to the visitation of David’s mother (Becky ‘Bebeck’ Woodall) and aunt (Alice Lee). Each had a large board with pictures from their seventy plus years in life. The photographs provided a great history of their lives and even if you didn’t know them, the photos gave you a glimpse of how much they enjoyed life.

The images below document my personal experience on April 27-28, 2011. They are a reminder that we are not in control and as Bebeck and Alice did, we should live each day to the fullest.

Chasing tornadoes near Birmingham on April 27, 2011

Chasing tornadoes near Birmingham on April 27, 2011

Road block south of Kowaliga Bridge on Lake Martin

Road block south of Kowaliga Bridge on Lake Martin

Searching through debris in rain using small led and iPhone light.

Searching through debris in rain using small led and iPhone light. iPhone photo

A spotlight was the only way to find your way out of the destruction.

A spotlight was the only way to find your way out of the destruction.

facebook status after searching for cabin.

facebook status after searching for cabin.

Officials discuss search and rescue operations. Lake Martin April 27, 2011

Officials discuss search and rescue operations during early morning hours. Lake Martin April 28, 2011

As the sun rises a man makes his way through the debris

As the sun rises a man makes his way through the debris

Volunteers help sort through debris.

Volunteers help sort through what is left of cabin.

The first sunset seen from this vantage point.

The first sunset seen from this vantage point.

Thanks for the Memories - Memorial left at site.

Thanks for the Memories - Memorial left at site.

In Memory of Becky Woodall and Alice Lee.

Becky Herren Woodall and Alice Herren Lee

Becky Herren Woodall and Alice Herren Lee

To all the volunteers and friends who helped that night and with cleanup of the cabin.
Also to my friend David and his family who has been there for us, especially when there is an Officer Campbell involved.

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{ 10 comments… add one }

  • Katrina May 10, 2011, 11:46 pm

    I’m speechless! God Bless You ALL!!

  • David Woodall May 11, 2011, 4:31 am

    And for the next 7 days, while my cousins and I tended to the details of our mothers’ funerals, Earl and Charla coordinated friends, equipment, and supplies as they sifted through the rubble of the cabin. They carefully picked up what they could find, sorted what they could as to who it belonged to (Mom or Alice), placed it in boxes, and delivered it to the respective children. Somewhere around May 1, I was all but begging them to stop. They had done so much, they had been through enough too. I didn’t have the humility to allow them to continue to help me until Charla pulled me aside and said “David…..stop. Think about it. If it hadn’t hit your cabin, where would Earl be? What would we be doing?”

    I knew the answer was “He’d be in Tuscaloosa, or Hackleburg, or Birmingham helping people there who need it too.” And I knew Charla was exactly right. Suddenly it was ok to *allow* them to help us (as if I could have stopped them). That is what Earl and Charla do. They go around the world, wherever people need help….and they help people. They help them simply for the fact that they need help. They usually don’t know them when they arrive, but by the time they leave, they are joined together forever. It is ironic that my best friend had to do for me what he had done for others in Biloxi, Haiti, Thailand, the Philippines, and anywhere else that needed it. Seeing them in action, helping ME, was humbling and amazing. I can never repay them, and I know I don’t have to, but there are no finer friends anywhere on Earth, and I am so lucky to have had them around me those days of the tornado, the days before, and the days to come. I love them as genuinely and as deeply as anyone ever could.

    Officer Campbell has a different opinion, but he and I have an agreement that makes it all ok.

    And Earl and Charla…….we’re even!

  • Diane Lemmond May 11, 2011, 8:30 am

    Oh how my heart breaks for those who have suffered so much. But it is in these times that we realize what life is all about…..enjoying every sunrise, glorifying in every sunset, praising the sight of a rainbow, being revived by the flight of a butterfly. We have seen humankind at its best….helping those in need.

    Earl and Charla are great examples of what we are suppose to be. They see hurt, they act. They see pain, they touch. They see loss, they step up to help rebuild. They inspire, they challenge and most of all they show us how to love. Thank you for all you do!

  • Ms. B.J. Miller May 11, 2011, 8:37 am

    My heart just breaks for you and your family. I can not even begin to imagine the grief that you feel, and Probably anger, Confusion, Frustration…I just know that I will be praying for you and your family.
    I pray that the God of ALL Comfort reaches down and wraps HIS arms of Love around you…Now, and in the Many days, weeks, and Months to come.
    I don’t know you personally…but I know that I will be sending down to Alabama..A few Supplies, with people from my church. What I have isn’t much…but I hope it will help whoever uses it.
    Much Love & Prayers,
    BJ Miller

  • Marie Knowles May 11, 2011, 11:24 am

    Thank you for posting this account of that awful night. Becky was my dearest friend during our childhood and teenage years in Tallassee, and it is still hard to fathom what has happened. She was one of a kind and will be greatly missed by all who knew and loved her. The photo of the sunset beyond the rubble is especially poignant, and it is somehow a bit comforting to see such beauty beyond all the rubble. We will continue to pray for Becky and Alice’s loved ones and all those whose lives have been forever changed by these storms.

    Thanks and blessings,
    Marie Knowles
    Columbia, Missouri

  • Cynthia Hardy Wadsworth May 12, 2011, 12:28 pm

    These pictures are amazing and really tell what it was like to those who lived through these storms. These women meant so much to my Dad, E W Wadsworth , and our family. They were always kind. We ate at the hotel Talasi so many, many times. It was the first place we went to when we visited. Lake Martin and the Waites cabin was dear to my heart, and to the hearts of my cousins. I am so sorry for your loss. This is a fabulous story. God bless you.

  • Cynthia Hardy Wadsworth May 12, 2011, 12:32 pm

    I will post a link to this on my wall and if OK I will post a picture on the Tornado dogs lost and found and moved page, because people just don’t get it. They can’t wrap their heads around this…they expect you to take care of your dogs, and God only knows what else when you walk upon such a scene and are searching for your loved ones. This is great. I will credit the pictures to you. Thanks so much.
    Cynthia Wadsworth
    My Dad , EW would love this story and yet be so sad.

  • Mary Lee May 24, 2011, 4:53 pm

    Again and again, thank-you Earl and Charla.

  • Becky Hobson April 25, 2014, 10:51 am

    Third anniversary.. thinking of you all and holding you in my heart.

  • earlb April 25, 2014, 11:15 am

    Thank you…That was a tough day for many people.

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