Two weeks on, Wellington still digging out of storm debris

Tim Lockette, The Anniston Star, Ala.
·4 min read

Apr. 10—WELLINGTON — In a normal year, Doug Heathcock would plant a raised-bed garden next to his Wellington Road home.

"We had strawberries, we had onions. All you had to do was walk right out there to get tomatoes," he said.

To start the planting this year, though, he'll have to clear mounds of assorted garbage off the garden plot. The March 25 tornado overturned a trailer next to his house, one Heathcock for years used as a storage building.

Now Heathcock's stuff — at least what isn't in the trees across the road — is in a heap in his yard. To move the base of the trailer, which is all that's left intact, he'll have to figure out how to flip it back on its wheels.

"I'm probably going to have to cut it," he said. "You can't cut it with a torch. You'd probably start a fire."

Two weeks and one day after an EF3 tornado bisected Calhoun County from Ohatchee to Knightens Crossroads, residents of the storm zone are still wrestling with the logistics of cleanup. There's no more round-the-clock chainsaw noise. Walls of debris — broken trees here, mounds of metal there — line the country roads like a shoulder-high hedgerow.

Large donation centers in Ohatchee and Williams are giving way to more pared-down charitable efforts, now that people are no longer coming in regularly for bottled water and other basic needs.

But somebody has to right overturned trailers, separate the salvageable from the ruined and push all the junk to the road.

"We will rebuild," said Mangum Road resident Pat Gardner. She and seven neighbors, mostly relatives, rode out the tornado in a storm shelter lined with cinderblock and railroad ties. Now the ceiling of her house is on the floor, with musty-smelling insulation covering her living room and den and the roof entirely gone in some places.

"If we come out here at 8 in the morning — boots on the ground — and stay here until 5 in the afternoon, that's what, a nine-hour day?" Gardner said. "That's been us, seven days a week."

Gardner said she and her family stopped working at Easter, just long enough to observe the day and give thanks for their own survival. Then it was back to work.

In Wellington, the biggest thing on some residents' minds Friday was the debris truck. Local emergency management officials announced this week that contractors would begin making their rounds of the storm zone, hauling off debris in trucks. Wellington residents haven't seen them yet.

"They're working full force now," assistant county engineer Rodney McCain said Friday. "They're on their way."

Debris crews started on Ragan Chapel Road in Ohatchee, site of the most extensive damage, he said. They've already established a disposal site in Ohatchee, McCain said, and are working on one in the Oak Grove area, nearer to Wellington.

Crews will reach Wellington for the first round of pickup in the next two weeks, McCain said. They'll be done with the entire storm zone in "under 90 days," he said.

Those heaps of trees and mounds of metal are just the big stuff. The small stuff could take much longer to sort out. Near Pat Gardner's storm shelter, slivers of glass and pottery, plasticware lids and photos of toddlers and high school graduation lie in the grass like flakes of dandruff. A pair of small, blackhaired pigs roam the neighborhood — likely someone's pets, according to Gardner.

Doug Heathcock has seen this sort of chaos here before. He was a child in 1954 when a tornado ripped through this same place. He felt the boards in the floor of his house curl under his feet, and woke up with his head against a floor joist. The family's refrigerator was undisturbed amid the rubble, and he opened it to find a half-glass of milk and a dozen eggs untouched.

March 25 was strange like that. Heathcock was in Alexandria when the storm hit, he said. He returned to find his storage trailer destroyed and a pumphouse just feet from his home blown away. The house itself — and in it, his dachsund, Bella — was fine.

"They're unpredictable," he said. "I would advise anyone, if they hear a forecast that a storm's coming and they're in the path: Get away from it. Go somewhere safe."

Capitol & statewide reporter Tim Lockette: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.