Rising from the Rubble
Megan Wood Mitchell shares a first-hand account of the April 27, 2011 tornado that pummeled Lake Martin
By Megan Wood Mitchell
Lake Martin is my second home, a place that brings a sense of tranquility and peace to my heart. It’s the kind of place that gets inside of you and stays with you everywhere you go. I’ve spent every summer for 27 years on Lake Martin, making sure to never miss a Fourth of July with friends and family. As I got older, I shared the magic of this place with others as well. When I graduated from high school, around 15 of my closest friends made the trip to Dadeville all the way from Baldwin County to spend a weekend of fun in the sun. And when I got married, I couldn’t picture it happening anywhere else. It is a safe haven.
It is the kind of place where even when it changes, it doesn’t change.
Until it did.
April 27, 2011 started out like any other day on the lake. Fresh from a deployment to Afghanistan, my husband and I took a little vacation with another military couple. Of course, when time allows us a short reprieve, the first place we think of is the family lake home. As we had done so many times in the past, we ventured to Dadeville from Clarksville, Tenn., for a few days of fishing and swimming and boating. At some point during the afternoon, there was a shift in the air. The wind was blowing more steadily. The clouds were rolling in so fast and the powdery blue of the sky changed to smoky gray. Something felt off and it made me anxious to the very core.
Still, we tried to go about our day, planning to grill hamburgers and relax that evening with a game of poker and a few cold drinks.
And as we turned on the television, we watched in shock and awe as the state around us was ripped apart by black and gray colored wedges. Entire neighborhoods were leveled. Tuscaloosa was demolished. Lives were lost, and the same storm was hurtling toward Birmingham.
The feeling of anxiety only increased. We called to check on relatives and friends in both Tuscaloosa and Birmingham, making sure anyone in its path was aware and taking cover.
We tried to carry on, arguing over whether to keep tuning in to the news or just brush everything off.
It was around 8:30 p.m. when we heard the sirens.
Lightning was lighting the sky like a camera flash, first in the distance, then close enough to make our hairs stand on end. We made preparations, gathering two dogs and two of our three cats. The voice on the television said the words, “Dadeville is under a tornado warning.” There was a tornado on the ground, swirling through Eclectic and then Kowaliga, spinning across the waters of our beloved lake, hitting islands and ripping down trees. Cutting a path right toward us.
At some point, we knew we would be hit. We were scrambling, trying to round up one last cat, a Himalayan named Buster, my mother’s cat. We had to leave him behind. Running down those stairs to our safe room without him was one of the hardest things I have ever done. We had prepared for the worst and were only hoping for the best. Luck was not in our favor.
We paused on the deck, looking through the darkness, straining to see what our fate would be. At what seemed like the last moment we were able to determine the undeniable signs: the massive black wall cloud, the flash of green light, the outline of a massive wedge tornado was illuminated. The worst was inevitable.
My only brief thought was, ‘Why are there no sirens now?’ The four of us paused in awe, dangling in fear’s grasp.
We hunkered down in a hallway closet. Me, my husband, and my friend Lindsey huddled together on the floor, with Lindsey’s fiancé Ryan standing over us. The pressure in the room dropped incredibly fast, causing our ears to pop painfully. It was only a few seconds later that it hit us head on. It was a cacophony of sounds: metal being twisted, glass shattering, walls caving in. There was no telltale “freight train” sound, only the sound of destruction. We braced ourselves against anything we could find, but mostly we held on to each other. The door to the closet bounced wildly on its hinges, and I remember closing my eyes as glass and dirt and water was blown in from every crevice. With my husband’s arm around me and my dog’s head in my lap, we could not even hear our own screams over the noise. The entire floor above us was ripped away from the house, and even part of the ceiling above our heads. Ryan would tell us later on that he felt like his feet were leaving the ground, the storm swirling over and around us, trying to suck us out. I knew the house was going. I knew everything would be gone.
And as quickly as it came, it was over. We used our phones to dial 911 and to call my father when we realized there was debris thrown against the door. After forcing it open, I remember my husband peeking around the corner into the hallway and saying, “Oh God. Meg, don’t come out here.” He only confirmed what I knew to be true. Where there had once been a main level over our heads, now we could clearly see the night sky.
We made our way out eventually, through one bedroom that was just barely intact. It was hard to tell if the house had imploded or if it had literally been swept away. We carried a mini-schnauzer and a 55-pound husky out of the house and onto the deck.
Looking around, there was nothing. The house across from us was wiped clean from its foundation. A multi-level, well built home, gone.
And so was ours. The chimney had buckled in, the top level was nowhere to be found, the remaining level was just a shell, and all three of our vehicles and our motorcycle were totaled. We still have not found one of those cars to this day.
And the pet we couldn’t save. Little Buster. He was gone too.
Our neighbors were out on the street with flashlights, there to help another neighbor who lived alone. Everything had been picked apart like meat from a bone. Once a three story house, there were literally two rooms left: the closet where we took refuge and the mudroom on the dock. There was very little rubble, unlike some of the homes around us that appeared to have been smashed by wrecking equipment.
But we were alive and mostly uninjured. We had witnessed God’s wrath and His mercy in just a matter of minutes.
The relief effort began almost immediately. Neighbors down our street sheltered us in their basement until the roads were passable and my mother could reach us. My husband went back and found the two surviving cats and my antique teddy bear, a treasure I have had since I was only four months old. Somehow, it was not sucked out of my bedroom along with many other items. A few small items from the top level had been discarded on the street. My car keys and a bottle of medication were thrown from my purse, but the purse itself was nowhere to be found. A shopping bag full of clothes that had been inside one of our vehicles was recovered as well, but the contents were mostly ruined, soiled and wet.
It was probably around 2 a.m. when local volunteer firefighters were able to get to us. The entrance to our neighborhood was totally impassable. It was a night of anxiety and very little rest.
We went back the next day to blue skies that didn’t fit the scene. Every home within sight had been destroyed or damaged. We began collecting the things we could salvage, mostly a few pieces of furniture and some clothing. We never found anything of significance from the main level of the house. Pieces of siding and a closet door were discovered several miles away. My parents’ marriage certificate was found floating in the lake near Maxwell Gunter Recreation Center, around six miles from our home. A check from my mother’s checkbook was found in Grantville, Ga., nearly 100 miles away. Except for the foundation, the entire home would have to be demolished for reconstruction. Nothing else was salvageable. Now we are rebuilding, documenting the progress, and continuing to pray for those who have not been as fortunate.
Arthur Golden wrote, “Adversity is like a strong wind. It tears away from us all but the things that cannot be torn, so that we see ourselves as we really are.” The residents of Alabama woke to see themselves for who they really were on April 28, 2011, as an outpouring of support came to the areas devastated by these powerful storms. Some of these places are still recovering. Some of them may never be the same.
As the one-year anniversary of that dreadful night nears, I can say I am proud to be from Alabama. The people of this state have shown so much love and compassion for one another, reaching out to help not only their neighbors, but also complete strangers. I was lucky to experience some of this help and support from strangers firsthand and it touched my heart in so many ways. It becomes easier to count your blessings when you suffer loss, but I pray every day for those who lost more than their home and their belongings.
It will be hard to forget that night and the way death was knocking on our door. And it has been even harder to reconcile why we survived a storm classified as “unsurvivable” while so many others did not. The face of the precious place I love has been forever changed, as my family has been forever changed. We can only hope that we will be able to make it what it was before. We can only look to the future with clear eyes and open hearts.