Picking up the pieces: Helena cleans up tornado destruction

By NATHAN HOWELL | Staff Writer

HELENA—Hundreds of volunteers showed up March 27 to help clean up debris in the Old Town Helena and surrounding areas after a violent EF3 tornado ripped through the city two days prior.

The Saturday was meant to be a fun afternoon with families out enjoying Easter egg hunts on the weekend before the holiday, and doing other casual weekend activities.

However, Helena Beautification Chair Kim Edwards put it best when she said “tragedies are not planned. They interrupt everyone’s lives.”

The storm caused devastation which impacted businesses in the area, as well as damaging houses and leaving many people without power for days.

The city and its residents responded quickly in calls for donations and help with groups collecting large amounts of food and essential supplies. After making the roadways accessible, the city quickly organized a cleanup effort in the affected areas which received overwhelming support from residents.

“Thank you all so much on behalf of Helena and its citizens. I know there are folks here who live here and love this town, but there are folks from other areas of Alabama that have come out today and I just want to thank you all,” said Helena City Councilperson Chris VanCleave addressing hundreds of volunteers.

Volunteers quickly got to work in the area near the Helena Amphitheater where the power of the storms was so clearly evident. Dozens of trees were ripped out of the group and laid across the park and Buck Creek. The riverbanks that the park sits on were forever changed by the sheer force of the winds.

“It is a little overwhelming to be out here,” Edwards said. “It was devastating to see this from the bridge, but now that we are down here, it is so much worse. We take so much pride in keeping the city beautiful that it is really striking to take a step back and look at what has happened.”

Throughout the day the sound of chainsaws cutting through limbs and the chatter of friends, family and community members filled the prior desperate silence that covered the area. Though the backdrop appeared grim, the unwavering dedication of people to recover offered a glimpse of hope in the face of devastation.

Aside from the debris created around the amphitheater, many communities in the surrounding areas were impacted with damages and the loss of electricity due to downed power lines.

Not even a mile away, the communities around Cunningham Drive faced similar destruction. Knowing this, volunteers split off to help these families recover and face the hefty task ahead of them.

“These are some of the most underserved communities in Helena,” VanCleave said. “A lot of these families don’t have homeowner’s insurance. They still don’t have power because of the way the power grid runs.”

VanCleave said that he met with the families who live out in these communities and provided information and resources to them to help them rebuild and move forward.

“We can’t come in and fix their homes, but we can point them to volunteers and resources that can provide help,” he said. “It brought me to tears to hear some of their stories. The need is so great with them, especially with those who don’t have power.”

At the end of the cleanup a clear impact had been made to the area. Trees were cut up and put in easy-to-remove piles and debris and other trash was raked up.

The devastation has left a permanent scar on this side of the city, but the incredible power of community helped to provide the beginning stages of healing.