By ASHLEY BERKERY and MADOLINE MARKHAM
After the devastating April tornadoes, Homewood Police Officer Mike Jackson returned to Hackleburg and found the high school he had attended in ruin. An EF-5 tornado – the fiercest kind of twister – had obliterated 95 percent of the small town’s structures.
“I was heartbroken,” Jackson said. “I saw a lot of friends’ houses and places I used to go—the high school, the football stadium, my church—all destroyed. Most people made it through though.”
Jackson was not in Hackleburg alone. Homewood was there with him.
Jackson’s friends still living in the town had told him there was no one there with the recovery and relief experience and equipment necessary to help, so Jackson talked to fellow police officers and eventually Mayor Scott McBrayer that Saturday night. At 5 a.m. the next morning a crew from the city was on the road to help.
Jackson had called the Hackleburg fire chief, a friend from his church there, and told him what they were bringing. “The tears in his eyes said it all,” Jackson said.
“Hackleburg was a great small town to live in,” Jackson said. “They are hard working people dedicated to family. Most are farmers or work at the Wrangler plant.”
The Homewood team worked about 16 hours that day with a special operations truck from Homewood’s Station One and cadaver dogs as part of search and rescue. CBS 42 news sent a cameraman, and Mayor McBrayer talked about the experience on the evening news. The fire department returned the next day to search the downtown area.
“Once the mayor got involved and media got involved, relief in Hackleburg snowballed,” Jackson said. A 200,000-square-foot warehouse was filled with so many supplies in one week that Hackleburg shared them with neighboring Phil Campbell, another town in the tornado’s direct path.
The mayor and Homewood Chamber of Commerce organized a crew to return to Hackleburg two weeks later on May 14. Nurses from Brookwood Medical Center brought tetanus shots and first aid kits that were donated by the hospital. Homewood Pharmacy, Huffstutler’s Hardware Store, Kmart, Piggly Wiggly and Sam’s Club also donated supplies.
Some in the group helped physically clean debris with Homewood equipment while the others searched for lost belongings in hopes to reunite them with their owners.
Chamber assistant Caroline Hubbard said she prayed before the trip but was not remotely prepared for what she discovered that day. What Hubbard found in the midst of her search was beyond her realm of comprehension, leading her to document the trip with more than 200 photographs.
“I came across so many Bibles and spiritual books,” Hubbard said. “I found one book opened to the scripture that talks about how if God cares for the sparrows of the earth, how much more will he care for our needs, clothes, food and drink?” Another book was lying open and the words on the page simply read, “Would you believe?”
In the midst of all the devastation and darkness of a city that is still without electricity and water, Hubbard said there was an amazing peace and feeling of unity. Volunteers from all over the Southeast and even some from as far away as Missouri were there that day helping the community. To-go plates of food had scriptures written on the boxes. Cookies were tied with verses. People were praying for recovery.
“One family I spoke with lost everything,” Hubbard said. “The wife lived her entire life in Hackleburg and was not going to let this tragedy push her out of her home, so they bought a trailer and are now living in the midst of all the debris where their home once stood.”
Jackson also spoke of the hope in the rubble in Hackleburg. “I haven’t been able to make it myself, but I heard it looks a lot better up there,” he said.
Friends of Jackson’s parents lost their daughter, in her 30s, in the tornado, and will become guardians of her infant son, who was two weeks old at the time. Jackson has already told them he will bring up all of his son’s old clothes once their home is ready to live in again so they won’t have to worry about paying for it in the coming years.
The city is coordinating further relief trips to Hackleburg. Hubbard prays that future trips will be as blessed as they were May 14.