After the Storm: Survival and Recovery in Dekalb County

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Dekalb County lost 35 residents on April 27th, 2011. Since that day, work began to restore the area to the way it was before.

The Jackson/Dekalb Long Term Recovery Committee was integral in that process, responding to 424 homes destroyed and 376 heavily damaged. The LTRC has had 218 cases approved for expenditures of $356,941.80. With the help of 128 volunteer teams from 23 states, the LTRC has rebuilt 28 homes from the foundation up. Of those completed, 15 families are moved in.

April 27, 2011 was a painful memory and marked the beginning of a new normal.

Dekalb County Sheriff Jimmy Harris was used to tornadoes, but nothing prepared him for April 27th, 2011. The day started with two fatalities.

“I knew that we were in for a long night,” says Harris.

With the death toll rising so fast, autopsies weren’t an option. The Rainsville Fire Hall became a triage, with bodies being brought in from all over the county and living victims looking for help.

“It was just pure chaos,” recalls Harris.

Sheriff Harris, along with his most seasoned officers, were in full work mode, until something brought them to a halt.

“They brought the first child in and we unwrapped the child and placed the child in a body bag,” describes Harris. “Every officer in the room began to cry.”

Sheriff Harris had to walk outside to regroup.

“I said Lord, you gave me this job and I don’t think you’ll put any more on me than I can handle, but I need some help,” says Harris.

Help came from all over the nation. At one point, there were more than 200 officers on patrol in the county and 42 guardsmen and women. A distribution center stayed open 24 hours a day for three weeks after the storm. Volunteers poured in to help strangers in need, like Bobby and Donna Abbott, who sought cover in their Sylvania home when an EF-5 tornado headed straight for them.

“It was just unbelievable,” describes Bobby.

Donna, her son, daughter in law, two grandchildren and a family friend packed into a lower level bathroom.

“You could hear the trees breaking,” says Donna.

Bobby didn’t make it inside fast enough and nearly didn’t make it at all.

“If it hadn’t been for a refrigerator that was in the garage that fell across my legs, I think it would have blown me away,” says Bobby. “I don’t think I would be here.”

The Abbotts decided to rebuild on County Road 27, on a hill, now nicknamed “Breezy Top.” They worked daily to restore the home they’ve shared since 1980.

“There are still emotions out there,” says Donna. “Sometimes you think, how did we make it this far in a year?”

But there’s no question about this – the tornado changed the Abbotts, for the better.

“We’re closer to the family,” says Donna.

“We’re going to church now,” says Bobby.

While the Abbotts are more subdued in their new-found faith, another couple is shouting the Lord’s praises.

“We’re excited because of Jesus,” shouts Wilma Ramlal. “Because he kept us alive!”

Loy and Wilma Ramlal’s Rainsville home is still under construction. Concrete center blocks serve as steps. They wash dishes on the front porch. A cooler stores food, drinks and Loy’s medications. Building materials are piled up inside waiting to be installed. There’s really only one finished room.

“I got my bedroom and my bathroom,” says Wilma.

After the tornado left them homeless and living in a hotel, then renting an apartment, the excited couple couldn’t wait to return home.

“We are blessed,” says Wilma. “I’m not complaining about anything. I got everything I need.”

The Ramlals acknowledge that recovery is a long and often difficult process, but remind everyone to stay encouraged.

“Don’t give up,” says Loy. “Just trust in the Lord and he will send the right people at the right time.”

The work is far from over in Dekalb County and efforts are underway to protect citizens from future tornadoes.

The county has been approved for almost $350,000 in grant funding for two community shelters in Mentone and Crossville to add to the six shelters previously approved from other storms.

The county also constructed a 600-person shelter at Plainview School in Rainsville for use by students in temporary classrooms. When school is not in session, it will be used as a community shelter.

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