Published April 25, 2012
HACKLEBURG, Ala. – It was about 3:20 p.m. a year ago when the skies grew dark over the northwest Alabama town of Hackleburg and a tornado dropped from the sky. When it left, 18 people were dead. All but one of town's 32 commercial buildings was wiped out, including its largest employer, leaving most of the survivors without jobs.
"The building just collapsed on us," said Kelly Dobbs, crying as she recalled the storm hitting her workplace, Ray's Pharmacy, and trying to protect her then-1-year-old daughter from flying debris.
"Then there was a weird noise and lights were flashing and cinderblocks started hitting us," she said.
When the first anniversary of the storm arrives Friday, it will find Dobbs and many others still living in FEMA trailers, while others have moved away. The town's cafe and grocery store have not been rebuilt. Some thought it would be impossible to rebuild what was once named the "Best Hometown in America" by CMT, the country music network.
But there are signs of the town coming back to life: City hall has been rebuilt and final plans have been set for a new police and fire station. Downtown is being refurbished.
And the largest employer, a distribution center for VF's Wrangler clothing company, plans to build a new plant on the giant vacant lot on the north side of town where its old plant was destroyed. Gov. Robert Bentley is expected to attend a groundbreaking ceremony on Thursday.
Sam Tucker, vice president for human resources for VF Jeanswear Americas, said it was clear state and local officials wanted the plant to rebuild in Hackleburg, which had 1,527 people before the storm.
"It was clear from the beginning that the people of Alabama wanted us to be there," Tucker said.
The town's annual festival will be held Saturday after being canceled last year because of the destruction. Trophies for the festival's car show line the walls of 72-year-old Mayor Douglas Gunnin's office. The date on them will be changed from 2011 to 2012.
"This community has 100 percent worked together to try to put everything back together," he said.
Gunnin said he was 3 years old when a similar tornado tore through the town in 1943, killing four and destroying 85 homes. He didn't hesitate when asked if Hackleburg would once again be the town that reminds people of the fictional Mayberry in "The Andy Griffith Show."
"They built back and came through the storm then and we are going to build back now," he said.
Dobbs', the 23-year-old pharmacy technician, said Ray's Pharmacy is now in a temporary building, but is building a new store next door. Another pharmacy is also being built in town. She and her daughter, Kaelyn, have been living in a FEMA trailer since their small apartment was destroyed.
"The roof was off. The walls had fallen down. Everything was there, but it was all gone," Dobbs said.
She plans to stay in the town, where there is a major difference from before: "Everyone is scared to death every time a storm comes up."
A former downtown cafe is now covered by a blue tarp, but proprietor J.P. Gilbert has set up a temporary location selling barbecue plates called J.P.'s Grill.
He said most of his customers seem committed to building back.
"I hear a lot about coming back and a lot of prayers," Gilbert said.
For brothers Scott and Steve Sutherland, there was never any talk of leaving town after their family's home was destroyed near downtown, where they lived with their parents and four other family members.
Steve, 20, is an assistant football coach at the high school. He and Scott, 21, worked recently on rebuilding the house. He said it was important for the family to stay in Hackleburg.
"It was too important to keep this community together. There are lots of good country people who love life and who love sports," Steve Sutherland said.