A Writer’s Day of Terror

By Shaun Burke

One of my favorite times of the week is sitting back with a cold Miller Lite and watching a NASCAR race. Once the race is over, I write about what I saw and hope a few people read it and enjoy what they just read. I even had the pleasure of attending the races at Talladega and Nashville each of the last two weekends. I hardly call myself a “professional writer”; however, it’s a hobby I enjoy doing.
This past week, I experienced one of the most heart wrenching situations of my life as I witnessed my hometown of Cullman, Alabama being ripped to shreds by an EF4 Tornado. Instead of going back and attempting to recap a race I didn’t even get to watch, I am going to try to convey my thoughts and emotions from the past week of my life. I just hope you read this and understand the magnitude of a tornado. When you hear the sirens, seek shelter! Also, even though my emotions are primarily tried to Cullman due to it being my hometown, many communities were devastated due to the tornado outbreak. Please keep all of Alabama, Mississippi and any other state that had deadly tornados in your thoughts and prayers. It will take time, but these communities will rebuild.
I have never been more scared than I was on Wednesday, April 27, 2011. I watched helplessly as a tornado ripped apart the town of Cullman, Alabama. Meanwhile, my mother, father and brother were in Cullman and typically considered the tornado siren as nothing more than a loud distraction to their routine activities.
Early in the morning, a small tornado tore through the town of Hanceville, Alabama; a town significantly smaller than Cullman and about 10 miles south. You could say it was a suburb of Cullman if towns of 15,000 had suburbs! During this small tornado, the power infrastructure was destroyed and several trees were downed. This left Hanceville in the dark and unaware of the approaching afternoon storms.
I consider myself to be fairly knowledgeable about weather and take it very serious. Many Meteorologists in Huntsville and Birmingham warned that Wednesday would be a “red letter day” and that it was important to stay weather aware. There would be several lines of weather coming through all day.
As I sat at work Wednesday in Huntsville, the sirens sounded early and often. So often in fact, that my company made the decision to let all the employees go home at 12:30. The National Weather Service cleared a warning for my town at 12:15 and employees made a mad rush to the exits in an attempt to get home before the next line approached.
One unfortunate problem with Cullman is that it lies exactly halfway between two major television markets: Huntsville and Birmingham. Typically, Cullman severe weather coverage is spotty as each market sort of assumes the other market will cover. Just after 2:00, Cullman County was put under a Tornado Warning. Since my father lived in Hanceville and he did not have power, I decided to find a Birmingham station online that was covering the storm approaching Cullman in order to warn him if needed. I began watching James Spann from ABC 33/40 online. Spann began showing a live feed of a tornado forming over Cullman, Alabama.
As I watched the tornado begin to form, I called my mother who works in downtown Cullman. I warned her of the approaching storm to which she usually shrugs and says “oh, ok”. She said she could sense the fear in my voice and knew this time was different. I had her turn to the same video that I had been watching and told her it was imperative she get into her shelter immediately. After getting off the phone with me, she called my step-dad and told him to take his elderly mother to the basement. My step-dad then called my step-brother and warned him of the approaching tornado.
After speaking to my mom, I called my father who had been working on repairing buildings and removing trees all day in Hanceville. I assumed he was in Hanceville and was calling him to inform him of the approaching storm. When I called him and asked him where he was, he informed me he was driving in downtown Cullman! For the rest of my life, I will not forget the immediate fear that overtook me. I frantically told him that I was watching a tornado on the ground approaching Cullman and that he needed to get the hell out of there immediately! He calmly said “Oh, I don’t see anything…..OH MY GOD, I SEE IT!” and he quickly hung up.
Here I was, sitting in my house 40 miles away watching a tornado rip through Cullman and not knowing the wellbeing of my parents. For the next few minutes, I watched the live stream, attempting to hold back tears. My five year old daughter didn’t understand why her Daddy was so upset. I picked her up, hugged her tight and just prayed like I never have before.
After a few minutes, I began calling my parents and other family in Cullman. Due to the power failure, circuits were extremely busy and I was not able to get through. After several failed attempts at getting ahold of anyone, I called my brother who lived in Auburn. He had been in class and did not know what was happening. I told him to begin calling everyone and we would let each other know who we got in contact with.
The first person I was able to get ahold of was my mother. When I heard her voice and she told me she was ok, I absolutely lost it. She told me that she was fine and her store was fine; however just one block to the south of her, the tornado had ripped apart the historic business district. One of my mother’s businesses is a Budget truck franchise. They park all the trucks in a large parking lot between two buildings in the historic district. They were tossed around and on their side. In fact, one of her trucks was missing!
Next, I got ahold of my dad. After heeding my warning, he drove about 3 miles north of town where he was clearly out of danger’s way. He then took an amazing video of the tornado as it tore through Cullman. He told me he was OK and that he was about to go downtown and participate in the initial search & rescue.
After about two hours, I was able to get ahold of everyone I was trying to call and was able to call them all back and let them know everyone else was safe. I sat back and again, prayed. I prayed for the way everything worked out. If the tornado hadn’t hit Hanceville in the morning, I would not have been watching that Birmingham station. If I had not been watching that Birmingham station, I would not have seen the live feed. If I had not seen the live feed, I would not have had the fear in my voice that convinced my mother how serious the situation was this time.
I later learned that while my mother’s office building was spared (despite losing the inventory of trucks) and her house was spared, my step-brother was not so lucky. After my step-dad called him to inform him of the storms, he began watching the weather closely at his home. He saw the tornado approaching and got into the bathtub along with a friend who was at the house with him. As the tornado passed, it threw a tree down on top of the historic farmhouse and knocked it off the foundation. Had he just gotten into the bathroom instead of the tub, he would have been crushed. The only part of the house with enough space for two adults was the bathtub. Again, I count my blessings that the series of events went like it did and may have saved my step-brother from injury or worse.