Standing on his front porch Friday, nearly two years after an F4 tornado tore a hole through his mobile home on Cochran Springs Road, Tim Axelton said it’s still hard to believe how much the view has been altered.
“You couldn’t see the road before,” Axelton said, pointing to his neighbor’s mostly bare yard, where he said a whole tree line used to stand. “All these houses are new. They had to be completely rebuilt.”
Axelton’s own home couldn’t be salvaged either, with the $9,000 he received from FEMA after the April 27, 2011 tornado that rocked Calhoun County, killing nine and leaving a path of destruction a mile wide in the northern portions of the county.
But Axelton was only a step away from closure Friday, as a team of volunteers from the Alabama Rural Coalition for the Homeless and Keller Williams Realty worked on repairing the outside of his home. Axelton and his wife have been living in the new structure for more than a year, but the outside of the home remained unfinished and vulnerable.
“I couldn’t believe it when I heard there were still people who needed this much help,” said Kaye Cash, a team leader with the Keller Williams project. “That’s why we’re out here, trying to challenge other groups to step up and help, because there’s a lot of work that needs to be done.”
Axelton said he gets that a lot. In the first six to eight months after the storm, he said volunteers helped clean his yard and get him on his feet while he and his wife wrestled with FEMA for money.
The last year, he said, the help all but dried up.
Visibility is a factor, Axelton said. Cochran Springs Road isn’t just off the beaten path compared to the state of Alabama. It’s off the beaten path even for Calhoun County.
“Along Highway 77, most of that’s cleaned up and it looks real nice,” said Ohatchee Mayor Steve Baswell on the improvements within the town limits. “It’s different out in Cochran Springs. I don’t get out there too much.”
Axelton’s neighbor Ken Staek said after the tornado, the focus seemed to be on other parts of the state.
“All you heard on the news was Tuscaloosa, Tuscaloosa, Tuscaloosa,” Staek said Friday from the porch of his home, which had to be rebuilt from the ground-up after the tornado. “We had a group of students from Mobile who came right after the storm to help with the cleanup and they had no idea that this side of the state even saw a tornado.”
Two years later, Staek said, not much has changed.
“We’re victims too,” Staek said. “People died here in Calhoun County. My neighbors didn’t make it. But you kind of stopped hearing about us.”
The situation isn’t only frustrating to homeowners. Calhoun County Assistant Administrator Faye Robertson said FEMA still owes the county more than $1.4 million that officials promised during storm cleanup.
“That’s money we don’t have if something were to happen tomorrow,” Robertson said. “If next week we had a fire or a storm that tore off a roof, we now have to borrow money because the federal government has our money.”
Robertson said that as the two-year anniversary approached, she drafted letters to the offices of Sen. Mike Rogers and Sen. Jeff Sessions to try to recoup the money. A lawsuit has also been discussed – an idea Robertson said she thinks is talked about by county leaders only half-jokingly.
“It’s been two years,” Robertson said. “We just want to remind them of that.”
But if life has moved back to normal for many residents, reminders of the storm still echo through every corner of the county for emergency responders and officials. In recent months, the Calhoun County Emergency Management Agency has looked to put the final touches on its revised Emergency Operations Plan – a document that EMA Director Jonathan Gaddy said began its revision process the night of April 27, 2011. In Ohatchee and White Plains, volunteer fire departments have been trying to secure matching funds for FEMA-assisted community storm shelters.
There are reminders, too, in the communities that saw the worst of the storm damage. The remains of the double-wide trailer Beau Griffith used to call home, still stood, ripped in-half, at the edge of his property just a little down the road from Axelton’s home on Friday. Griffith wasn’t getting a lot of help from volunteers Friday. After the tornado, he built a brand-new home, mostly by himself.
Griffith paused from his yard work Friday to think about that day nearly two years ago, before he admitted he couldn’t remember much. But in a lot of ways, he remembers it all too well.
“I won’t ever forget it,” he said. “Others might, but I sure won’t.”
Staff writer Brian Anderson: 256-235-3546. On Twitter @BAnderson_Star.