Local communities still rebuilding on anniversary of April 27 tornado outbreak

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By Joshua Price/Sports Editor

Storms ravaged Alabama on April 27, 2011. Tornados plowed across the northern part of the state from Tuscaloosa all the way to Georgia, destroying virtually everything in their paths. 

In the late afternoon of April 27, an F-5 tornado plowed through the intersection of Mount Gilead Road and Rocky Hollow Road in the center of the Webster’s Chapel community a few miles south of Hokes Bluff. 

The tornado spared little in the small rural Calhoun County community. Forty houses were completely destroyed and over fifty were seriously damaged, including five fatalities. A large number of those homes destroyed were uninsured.

Webster’s Chapel and its vicinity were transformed from a quaint village something similar to a ravaged battlefield. Debris was strewn for miles and trees of all sizes were snapped in two and bent to conform to the path of the storm; even vultures were no strangers to the area for many weeks after the tornado.

Webster’s Chapel received an outpouring of assistance from neighboring communities, churches and other organizations immediately after the storms. 

The Salvation Army, The Red Cross, and the United Methodist Church in Webster’s Chapel, among others, worked round-the-clock to provide the community with any resource that was needed. Donations of food, money, clothing and many other necessities poured in from across the state and nation to assist those who suffered in Webster’s Chapel.

Webster’s Chapel native and volunteer Sylvia Benevidas said the recovery was a community effort.

“We had all the agencies and they helped, but in the beginning the men in this community worked day and night for their friends and neighbors. We served them a meal every night as they would stagger in bone tired from helping their friends. These men and more are the true heroes. It was a life changing experience.”

Webster’s Chapel is still the focus of many volunteer organizations.

“We still get volunteer groups returning wanting to help in any way they can,” Benevidas said. “We still have individuals calling to donate and we still have trucks for staging donations for families’ needs as they continue to rebuild. 

“After the storm organizations and churches found us and the support was astounding. Donations poured in from all over the United States.”

Much progress has been made in Webster’s Chapel over the past year. Homes that were destroyed have since been replaced with new ones, while homes that were damaged have since been repaired. 

“Our local churches used donations and resources to begin to build back homes,” Benevidas said. “Some families got support right away from the church housing programs, some… struggled to get support. However, in the end the community and churches worked together so well that the recovery was faster than anyone ever expected.”

Pine Grove Pentecostal Church was leveled by the tornado. As the tornado approached, two people left their homes and sought shelter in the basement of the church. The tornado leveled the building and the two suffered injuries. One of the women suffered a heart attack. 

Located near the intersection of Mount Gilead Road and Rocky Hollow Road, the site of the former church is now occupied by a brand new facility. 

‘Genesis: A New Beginning’ was dedicated on April 22.

“The new building offers hope and progress to the community,” Benevidas said. “Volunteers from out of state, county officials, and surrounding churches from outside this community all came together last Sunday in the dedication to celebrate a new beginning with Genesis. The atmosphere of the recovery was humble, grateful and appreciative to so many that worked together in unity for the recovery. There was a great love for God and giving Him credit for bringing the families, community and churches together in harmony.”

Benevidas said the dedication of the new church was emotionally-charged.

“It was a connection of all churches, all hearts and souls outside the context of denominations or church policy. It was a dedication recognizing that the church was a house of God, taken by a natural disaster and replaced as a place of God for all of His children, community and the new name Genesis…a new beginning was very fitting. Everyone left the dedication uplifted with hope and faith for better things to come.”

The fire station in Webster’s Chapel was seriously damaged and unable to be saved. It was demolished last summer and is yet to be replaced. 

“We are still fund-raising to restore our fire department and working toward a community center/storm shelter. We also are hoping to be able to find a way to rebuild the community store that was destroyed in the storm.”

Despite the rebuilding progress made over the past year, the lives of many of the survivors have not yet been reassembled. Those who survived are a closely-knit group because of the experience.

“We have many families [in Webster’s Chapel] that are still traumatized and suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome because of the storm,” Benevidas said. “The community is more connected both socially and spiritually since the tornado. [Webster’s Chapel] is like a large family…there is a bond, a unity that has all ways existed in this community that is stronger than ever before. The faith and belief that people are good and care in spite of the bad things you hear is very strong in Webster’s Chapel due to the love and support that has been poured out by so many loving individuals.”

Donald Douthit is pastor of the United Methodist Church in Webster’s Chapel. He said the destruction did not disrupt regular Sunday services. Although the church served as a depot and was filled with supplies, the congregation met in the road amid the destruction.

“I preached the 23rd Psalm the first Sunday after the storm,” Douthit recalled. “These folks know what its like to ‘walk in the valley of the shadow of death.’ It was an appropriate ceremony. Our community is closer and stronger because of this.”

Emmett Roper, former pastor of the Mount Gilead church, is a native of the Webster’s Chapel community.

“We saw people come together after [the storm] like never before. As a whole, Webster’s Chapel sticks together. Many people were led to Christ by the storm. Basically, we are one. The recovery could not have been done without God and us working together. Everyone in this community has received help in some way or another. This place looks completely different and I feel great about it. I feel that God has intervened and He has blessed this community. This is a beautiful community in more ways than just what you see when you drive through it.”

Benevidas is optimistic about the future of Webster’s Chapel and its continued recovery.

“I see a community that has been restored. Many people have better, more stable homes than before the storm. I expect more leaders and motivation to keep the community united and connected. I see a community that is closer to God, more aware of their blessings and more willing to give and service others due to their experience and being so loved and embraced by so many.” 

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