In Tuscaloosa, where scores of home lots are now empty and littered with debris and weeds, Stephanie Nixon stood in her new home built by church volunteers as she recalled the terror of last April 27, when 62 twisters plowed across the state, killing 253 people.
The twister that mowed down Nixon’s neighborhood ripped her old home into shreds as she and her family cowered inside. On the anniversary, Nixon wanted nothing more than to be with her two sons and boyfriend before attending a citywide ceremony.
“We just want to love each other,” said Nixon.
Gary Limmroth and his wife are still rebuilding their tornado-ravaged home, but he took time out to reflect as he stood beside a small lake still full of storm debris. Broken, gnarly trees gashed the horizon; some nearby businesses are just now reopening.
Limmroth, whose commercial photography business also was damaged, still struggles with the fact that a University of Alabama student died when a tornado shredded a rental home he owned.
“They have a memorial where it happened. There’s a chair, and sometimes I just go sit and pray,” said Limmroth.
During a ceremony at the Capitol in Montgomery, Gov. Robert Bentley was flanked on either side by 253 Alabama flags — one for each of the storm’s dead. Behind him was a placard with the name of each person who died.
“I love the people of this state, and we’re going to stay with them and continue to work with them until we help them get to full recovery,” Bentley said. “And that’s going to take a while. You have to realize that. It’s not going to happen in just one year.”
Communities across Alabama have planned ceremonies and events to recall the tornado outbreak, which injured about 2,000 people and damaged or destroyed tens of thousands of homes and businesses.
Organizers in Limestone County planned a ceremony to break ground for a memorial to the people who died there. The northwest town of Phil Campbell is planning a memorial service to remember the 26 people who were killed in the city or nearby rural areas. A landmark cafe that was destroyed in Cullman used the anniversary to reopen.
The city of Tuscaloosa — where a twister was blamed for more than 50 deaths — scheduled a community memorial service at the University of Alabama’s Coleman Coliseum, around the time the tornado bore down on the city.
The tornadoes killed people in 19 of Alabama’s 67 counties include Elmore County, where Alicia McCarver’s half-sister and niece died in storms that tore through Myers Trailer Park in Eclectic. McCarver, a 29-year-old cook from Montgomery, said she attended the Capitol prayer service so her relatives and the other victims wouldn’t be forgotten.
“It’s brought our family closer together. We’re staying in touch, making sure we talk instead of letting time go by,” she said. “Sometimes you get so busy, you don’t talk.”
Jamie Brooks, 30, of Wetumpka took her three young sons to the ceremony because she wanted them to learn a sense of community.
“They need to witness it,” Brooks said. “We’ve got to teach them to grow up and help each other and do the right thing in their lives.”
Brooks said she helped with clean-up and volunteered on a chain saw crew to clear debris after the storms. She also volunteered in soup kitchens and bought and delivered supplies to those left homeless by the tornadoes.
“I don’t know how to explain it,” she said. “Just destruction. Everything is not where it should be. And we’ve been hit so hard, town after town after town.”
The day was particularly hard for Sandra McGee, 50, of Tuscaloosa.
McGee and her family survived the twister that ripped their home in two, and she and her husband, Earnest, then spent more than six months living with a daughter while the house was repaired.
But last month, with things looking up, McGee’s husband died of a massive heart attack at work. Friday was both the anniversary of the twisters and one month to the day since he died.
McGee spent the morning at the cemetery where her husband is buried. She came home to a house full of memories but stripped of the big, old hardwood trees that used to shade her yard.
“I just hope I can get through the day,” said McGee.