A field of tears: db's look at the devastation in Alabama

Don Barone
An American flag stands among the debris from what is left of Cullman, Ala.

About the author

Don Barone

Don Barone

db has been in the reporting biz for over 30 years, won some Emmys and other awards, but is proudest of his four-decade marriage, his two kids and the fact he founded Tackle The Storm Foundation to help children.

"Broken bottles broken plates …"

Dateline:  Cullman, Alabama

I'm writing this under candlelight.

We have no power here in Cullman, Ala.

I have a little tiny flashlight thing strapped around my head, the kind the Elites use in the early morning darkness.

Around me, outside my semi-busted up RV, there is nothing but darkness on the ground, a black star-filled sky covers us from tree line to tree line.  If you listen you can hear the sound of generators try to light the world.

But they are going silent as well.  No one has any fuel, the pumps need electricity and, "We ain't got none."  In another night, maybe tonight, all will be quiet.

Photo GalleryPhotosPhoto Gallery

I can't work like this.

Not because of writing by candlelight.

Not because of the tiny flashlight thing on my head jerks around to much.

I can't work like this.

Because I can't see the computer screen through the tears.

" … broken switches broken gates … "

Through the window of a Cullman County Sheriff's car I saw this part of America all blowed up.  Some places I could only take photos of the destruction by shooting through the front or side window.  Not because they wouldn't let me get out.

Because I didn't WANT to get out.

These poor people have nothing left, the last thing I want to do is stick a camera in their face and show them as poor people with nothing left.

If I can send this story in without electricity, cell service, internet service, there will be no shots of people.

There will only be shots of the stuff people once had.

And that's easy to spot, most of it is hanging in the trees.

I'm leaving my RV here for a family who lost basically everything, and who stumble around what's left of their home looking for clothes, food, the money they had on their nightstand, but mainly, they search for photos.

Behind the sheriff's window I saw hundreds of people in Cullman digging through the deris, and when they stood up, and when the turned with a smile on their face to show the person next to them something, it was always a photograph.

The people I'm leaving the RV for … I will not name them … I will not take photos of them even though they said I could … the wife told me a story of how excited she was to find in the debris, "this tiny little velvet pouch."

"Why."

"That's where I kept my son's first tooth that he lost as a child."

It was the only time I saw her smile.

I was standing there as her husband walked and said he better start the barbecue to get dinner ready for the kids.  And then he stopped.

The man turned and looked out to a field, just stood standing there.  When he turned back to his wife his eyes were filled with a far-away look, it was like he wasn't there anymore, like whatever safe room he had in his head, he was in it.

In a few moments he was back, and looking at me all he said was, " … forgot … the grill is somewhere out yonder there."

With that he pointed to a field filled with broken toys, upside down car, clothes caught up in barbed wire, and one lone tire standing upright all by itself.  Just standing there next to a beaten up toy tractor and broken fishing pole.

And when I walked through yonder, I too went to the safe place in my head. 

" … broken dishes broken parts … "

The schools are closed, the banks are closed, most stores are closed.

No power.

Cell phone towers lay on the ground twisted into the shape of the twister, the only thing recognizable of the Little League is the familiar diamond shape.

Everything else has been crushed … downed power lines crisscross the outfield … the dugout is now about a foot tall. Off to one side, just beyond the parking lot where the minivans would normally be, over there just sitting all by itself, is the roof of a house or building.

I stood as a small herd of cows ran by me.  While being shocked by the cows, a donkey walked slowly behind me.  A family brown and white dog came over and laid down at my feet, put his head on my left foot and just looked up at me.

I scratched behind his ears, and went to my safe place.

I stood on the side of a road, one foot on someone's front door, and I felt violated.  Cars, "from not around here," a guy with all his possessions strewn all around here told me, were just driving around gawking at the destruction.

Hey you in the car … I lost nothing but I still felt like crap when you gawked at me … what are you nuts?  STAY HOME, or if you come here bring something and then get the hell out of your still drivable car … AND HELP OUT.

This is not some sort of large outdoor zoo … this is America busted up, and if I could have picked up the front door under my feet, I would have thrown it at you.

America … if you have that RV back behind the house, over there next to the garage and you are not using it until the kids get out of school this summer … clean it up … dump all your stuff out of the tanks … and bring it here.

RV'ers, if you are supposed to be some sort of friendly herd, head this way and give these folks the keys to your slide out bed, their beds have slid all the way to the next county.

I drove by what was once a very nice middle class American house … it was your typical split level … and it was split in half.  From the garage hung an American flag, on the stump of the tree that used to be in their front yard a lady sat just staring off into space. 

A couple feet away a man, probably her husband, was trying to figure out how to put a tent together … that was their new split level, now just one level with a flap to get in and out.

I'm not doing any interviews with anyone.

Most of the people I've met are only partway here.  And right now, that is as it should be.  If my lawn tractor was up in a tree, I wouldn't want to be all the way here either.  If my truck was folded up like some sort of 3D greeting card, I wouldn't want to be all the way here either.

The big scope of this here is beyond memory, at least I hope so.  Not the best day to be out of crushed ice and Tequila.

But I will never forget the infant life jacket caught in the branches of the fallen tree.

I will never forget the upside down boat and trailer.

I will never forget the crushed Christmas ornaments on a country dirt road.

I will never forget the broken good china in a tiny creek.

The checkbook in the dirt, the Easter Basket hanging in a tree, the Alabama and Auburn T-shirts in the fields, cars upside down, roofs right side up and laying on the ground.

They have lost their homes, their businesses, the cash they had where they put their wallet down, and that is gone as well.  They have no forks or knives, they have no plates, the refrigerator is in a field somewhere.  All the photos they had in their computers are gone, as are the computers.

The wedding dress saved in the closet is now up in a tree.  The kid's Princess dvd's where taken up in the wind and could be in Tennessee.  Their favorite shirt is now their only shirt, and it's on their back.

A roof has been separated from its house.A roof has been separated from its house.

I will never forget the people of Cullman.

The people with faraway eyes.

 I wish I could give them all my RV, hand them the keys and tell them to just go, escape this part of America all blowed up.

Bu I know, no matter how far they drive, no matter where they park, Cullman of today will chase them.

Everyone I talk to here, EVERYONE, tells me of their nightmares.  Sound sleep impossible, may never be possible again.

"db, I dream the tornado is coming and my children are standing in front of it and it is going to take them away and I can't get to them, I wake up sitting straight up in the bed."

Two people have died here.  Many have been injured physically.

Everyone has been injured mentally.

I will never forget those with the faraway eyes, and I worry about what they are looking at, and what they see.

The story here should not be about the tornado, but the people underneath it.  The people it crashed into, the people it missed but who saw it go by.

I stood at the exact spot where it touched down, hallowed ground now for Cullman.

That's because this is the spot where Cullman was forever change.  They might not know it yet, but in time there will always be the pre-tornado days, and the post-tornado days.

Before it came for them, and then when it came.

It took their homes.

It took their trees.

It took everything they worked their whole lives for.

But it didn't take their spirit.

Didn't take neighbors helping neighbors.

Didn't take strangers helping strangers.

“db, we were downtown digging through the rubble of the church and two National Guard guys were watching us … all of a sudden the guys were taking off their uniform tops and jumped in and started helping us remove the rubble."

And it didn't take the flags.

Everywhere I looked I saw an American flag waving.  Red, white and blue flew above the rubble, stood tall even if it was also ripped and torn.

I knew what it was all about, know what it means flapping there.

If you come for us you may injure us, you may give us a body shot or two, you may attempt to crush us.

But you won't.

You may take our flagpoles, but you will not take the flag.

You will not take our soul.

And now I have faraway eyes.

Faraway eyes filled with tears.

Tears of pride.  Throat all swelled up.

Because amongst it all, as I drove by, everyone waved.

Waved.

Waved hello.

Waved even while standing on the mound that used to be their homes.

Came over, shook my hand, talked to me.

Neighborly.

Even though I wasn't a neighbor.

Cullman, Ala., I don't know if I will ever be back.

But Cullman, and all of North Alabama blowed up, you will always be with me.

In my heart.

And when I think things are going bad for me I will always remember the waves from atop the rubble.

I will always remember the smile of the lady who fond her son's first tooth.

Remember the Sheriff who drove me around and the concern he showed for the people he grew up with.

Above all, I will remember the American Flags.

And the exact time, 4:27 p.m. on Friday, April 30, 2011 when I had no more tears left to give.

While looking through the lens of my camera and shooting Old Glory in a tree, my tears turned to pride.

And love.

Of the people of this here blowed up place.

Cullman, Alabama.
" … streets are filled with broken hearts."

Everything is Broken

Bob Dylan

--db

P.S. If people want to help the folks of Cullman, they can bring any kind of clothes for adults or children, chain saws, baby supplies like diapers, etc, to the First Baptist Church of Fairview, 1022 Welcome Rd. Cullman, Alabama 35058, or the can send money via Paypal to the church and they will use it to help the people directly. People can send money to fbcf@hiwaay.net

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