Valley coming back

By Carol Pappas
Photos by Jerry Martin

Monstrous trucks carrying limbs and debris no longer lumber up and down the 17-mile stretch of Shoal Creek Valley Road as frequently as they once did.

The air is no longer thick with smoke wafting from towering bonfires of cut trees and remnants from life in the valley before April 27.

You might say Shoal Creek Valley is returning to normal. But this is a new normal for the 600 or so who live there — their lives forever changed since that fateful day when a mile-wide tornado swept through their valley, leaving death and destruction in its wake.

Probably no one knows the new normal better than Shoal Creek Valley Fire Chief Vernon White. He met the tornado head-on that night as he drove the volunteer department’s rescue truck en route to help others trapped by the storm.

He and other volunteers had been cutting downed trees since early morning when another tornado wreaked its havoc on neighboring communities. When he heard the weather report late that afternoon predict a fierce tornado heading Shoal Creek’s way, White headed to the house.

He wouldn’t stay there long. Radio transmissions of people needing help compelled him to leave his safe space and offer assistance.

But as he turned the corner a few hundred yards from his home, he spotted the tornado heading right for him. “I didn’t have time to try to outrun it. It picked the truck up, turned it one time, and I grabbed hold of the steering wheel and laid down in the seat.”

In the course of a few terrifying moments, the tornado deposited the truck into a nearby inlet of Neely Henry Lake. It landed about 30 or 40 feet out into the water, upside down.

He used a knife to cut his seatbelt, and he swam to safety, suffering a black eye and a single cut to his face. “That about ended the day right there,” he feigned at humor, recalling the events of April 27.

But the gravity of it all was not lost on his wife, Linda. “We are so blessed. God saved him because this man’s got more work to do here on Earth.”

In the days since, he, along with countless others, have been doing that work, trying to put back together the pieces of their lives left by that day’s fury. Inspiring stories of modern-day Good Samaritans are as plentiful as the trees that once stood sentry over this peaceful valley.

For White and others in the valley, one story stands out in particular, and there will be a constant reminder of it to passersby and residents alike at the site of the makeshift command post set up that night to coordinate rescue efforts. It is a sign built by warrant officer cadets at South Alabama’s Ft. Rucker, and how it came to be at Shoal Creek Valley is a story in and of itself.

Six weeks earlier, it was time for the cadet class under the instruction of CW2 Brad Carpenter to adopt a mascot and a slogan, a tradition each year for these classes. The class’ mascot became “The Tornadoes” — their motto, “A force to be reckoned with, Sir.”

When the actual tornadoes did forge a deadly path through Alabama, Carpenter thought out of respect to victims that they adopt a different mascot. He took emergency leave himself when the tornadoes damaged his own family’s homes, hoping to help. His mother, Elaine, lives near Pell City, and his cousin’s house was “two feet tall after that.” Insurance regulations kept him from helping there, so he turned his attention to Shoal Creek.

He bought chainsaws, American flags, ropes and water and headed to north St. Clair County, only to be stopped again. They wouldn’t let him in at first, but his determination to “be effective” eventually opened an opportunity that led him to Armstrong Street. He spent the day helping a man he later found out was an Airborne Ranger and Vietnam veteran.

“At the end of the day, he said I can’t thank you enough. I told him, ‘It was an honor to have helped you. We owe it to you, Sir.’”

When he returned to Ft. Rucker, the mascot stayed the same, but the motto changed: “Stand Through the Storm.”

“Standing through the storm. That’s what we did,” Mrs. White said. “We stood together, and we’re gradually cleaning up.”

The men created a 4-foot-by-4-foot sign with the mascot and the motto painted on it, and it was dedicated to the community in early September. “We donated it to Shoal Creek as a symbol to provide inspiration that things are turning for the better,” Carpenter said. The men raised money and donated that as well.

“It is an awesome sign,” White said. “They are wonderful young men, wonderful family men. And it’s awesome what he has done for our nation,” he said of Carpenter, citing multiple tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan. “He is a blessing to me and should be a blessing to this whole great nation for the things he has done.”

Here at home, Carpenter served once again, helping neighbors he didn’t even know before.

After all, that is what life in the valley is about these days. Only one or two families are not rebuilding in a community that had more damage and destruction than houses standing when the tornado had run its course.

“Neighbors helping neighbors,” Mrs. White said. “That’s what it’s all about.

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