2011 Tornadoes: Phil Campbell, Five Years Later

Aug 6, 2016

An E-F-5 tornado ripped through the small northwest Alabama community leveling much of the town.  

“This is one of the hardest hit areas, you see, it looks like land has been cleared, especially this area we’re fixing to go to over here.

Police Chief Merrell Potter and I drove around Phil Campbell to survey the damage…

It looks like, almost like pasture land that’s just been cleared off, you can tell there used to be houses there but the green grass is starting to grow up through the debris that has been cleared.”

One year later, Potter says things were looking better…

“I have a feeling of camaraderie that came together when our town got hit, neighbors became neighbors, that is something we haven’t seen in a while and what’s great about that is that feeling has lingered on and neighbors that became neighbors are still neighbors and this is awesome to see people out in their yards working with each other and talking with each other and being a neighborhood town again.”

Now he says the reality is finally setting in…

I believe we’ve accepted that fact that some things are gone and it’s not going to be back. One thing that it is has done is give us an opportunity to grow in other areas, take chances on things probably years ago they wouldn’t have.”

One of the things that did come back was the Phil Campbell High School. It’s considered by many to be the heart and soul of the town. Principal Gary Odom says the original building was heavily damaged in the storms and had to be torn down….

“But the worst part was when we were moving out of the mobile units and into the churches, we had three churches, we had to divide grades up. We had, you know, 11th and 12th going to one, 9 and 10 in one and 7th and 8th in another.”

Shuffling from one location to another is all behind them now and students in Phil Campbell are in a state of the art facility. Before we ask…Odom says its storm proof…

“There is a storm shelter that will serve every student that we have plus some extra room. We’ve got it organized enough that each grade can be in a room, it just works out good for us and we feel safe.”

When APR first covered the Phil Campbell disaster, we told the story of Alex Jackson. She was in ninth grade at Phil Campbell High School when the storms hit.

“I watched them get a body out from under a tree and I mean it was just like…it just hit me, people are gone, people’s houses are gone everything’s, nothing’s going to be the same. I mean my brother lost two friends, and I’ve never seen him break down like that, it was…hard…”

We caught up with Alex a year later. To see how she was doing.

“I still think about it, but it’s like, I don’t know, I don’t know how to explain it. But like it’s, that’s the reason we’re here. It’s like we’ve came so far from pulling bodies and just getting emotionally stable again, I mean watching that was hard but now it’s kind of like, well, it’s over, here we are.”

She says she has changed as well, and still recalls what it was like the following day…

“When you’re living it, it is nothing like you see on the news. I remember coming back here the day after and it looked like a movie set. It didn’t look real, this was not the place I was yesterday, April 26th, this is not where I was at, and looking at it, it was crazy.”

While many people would seek out counseling after an event like this, Jackson says that isn’t the case with her…

“No, I’m pretty much the counselor, I’m who people talk to, like all my friends they come to me, and they come to me for anything, whether it be about the storm or anything personal. That’s me.”

Alex says her experience has been one of the better ones…

“Since I did not lose that much, you know, I’m, I’m lucky, I am lucky. I’ve mentally handled it well.”

It’s been a long road for the residents of Phil Campbell, and while progress can be seen five years later, the road looks longer still for its full recovery.