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TORNADOS of 27 APRIL 2011 - These Violet forces of Nature that do strange things

Though there were many tornados on that day I will focus mostly on one Tornado, the one shown portrayed in the map below using the black line that hit North Alabama in the afternoon of 27 April 2011, In particular I will focus on the damage caused around western Madison County and eastern Limestone County as I know it from visiting and assessing these cemetery sites after the storm. The area of my awareness was within several miles of my home in northwestern Madison County.

The cemeteries that fared the worst are the Nick Davis monument, Andrews Cemetery in French’s Mill & the Pike Cemetery in Madison County. The storm that hit Pike Cemetery was an EF1 tornado that hit about 4 o'clock in the afternoon. It was going east basically following the direction of Highway 72 into Madison Alabama. It felled a couple of large 75+ foot pine trees directly into the cemetery knocking over several monuments. This cemetery is in such bad shape it will need the help of a crew of folks to get it back into shape, Especially with the added damage from the storm. Since no progress has been made there I will focus on the Nick Davis Monument and the Andrews Cemetery. There were several cemeteries impacted that were close to the main track of the EF5 storm that was well maintained and the maintenance crew showed up and took care of the downed trees thus nothing to be done. The Nick Davis is a high profile cemetery that will be taken care of by someone because of its prominence in the area. The Andrews Cemetery is an abandoned cemetery that will require special care since no one will bother to fix the major problems there. That is what I deem as my role in this area.

This map shows the path of the Hackleburg Tornado the meanest of mean storms.

The map here shows the path of what has been named the Hackleburg Tornado, a feared EF5 violet force like a giant roto-rooter that destroyed many little towns and left a path of death and destruction across north Alabama that will be felt for years. Many folks lost their lives and others everything they owned that fateful day. The path plotted on this map is relatively accurate though the storm was wider in some places and may have dropped multiple vortexes making it as wide as a mile sometimes and as narrow as 300 yards in others. I  know this is an accurate portrayal in my area above because I plotted the black line on this map and then zoomed into the roads and places in more detail. Then later I drove around the Madison & Limestone County roads to confirm its accuracy against the actual damage path. However, the width of the  black line has no bearing to reality because of the changing nature of the storm and the simplicity of graphics. There was little damage after the storm crossed Highway 53 in Anderson Hills, so the storm must have lifted up to some degree after that. I also was not able to confirm the path in other counties southwest of Madison & Limestone but based on other information believe this plotting to be close to accurate. The curvature of the earth left this image with a small amount of error as the line above was exactly straight and a perfectly accurate line would have a slight bow in it.

As mentioned the Hackleburg Tornado destroyed Hackelburg/Phil Campbell/New Hope/Frenchs Mill & Harvest, and many other places across north Alabama spanning a distance of 90+ Miles and killing 50+ people. Now I did do some volunteer work to help the living clean up so don't accuse me of of worrying only about the dead folks.

Our first cemetery to be covered is the the Nick Davis Monument. It was hit by the worst part of the storm and knocked over and buried under about 50 tons of tree rubble. It is a big stone weighing about 10 tons and is about 30+ feet tall. I went there after the Tornado and climbed among the fallen tree limbs to get photos of the disaster.

Nick Davis Monument before being struck by the EF5 Tornado.

The Nick Davis Monument after the Tornado - buried in rubble of destroyed trees.

This is the main trunk of the stone with the inscription. It is barely visible after 27 Apr 2011. As you can see it was buried among the destroyed trees. Remarkably there was no major damage to this part of the monument. None of the three segments of the monument were broken, but the top spire was knocked off the mid section and found lying on the ground under the debris. The mid section, partly visible here, was sticking up among the fallen debris. A later assessment found a corner broken off from the fall which had the “N” Of Nicholas on it so that piece was kept and glued back on in the repair effort.

This photo was made after about 10 hours of my cutting and clearing of downed trees within a ten feet radius of the stone. Here we see the top spire lying to the east of the rest of the monument showing the usual tornado wind direction.

This up close image shows the damage from the tornado to the inscribed portion of the monument.
I was able to find the parts that had inscribed lettering on them and glue them back on. Then the rest of the fracture was restored by filling in the remaining gaps with a Type K mortar mix. (approved for historic monuments)  The proper formula to repair that  was 1 part Type N mortar, 3 parts hydrated Lime & 8 parts white sand with water to make it to the proper thickness to mold and shape. I trialed the mix into the fracture and smoothed it to blend it in. I  expected to see a color difference because the stone has natural patination & some stains that leaves it darker gray.

The monument after the repair to the upper northeastern corner. Notice I even had to recarve part of the N that was filled in with the mix

The Monument standing tall again

This photo included was made after the monument was back up again. I am unaware of who reinstalled the top back onto the base. I finished restoring the base and clearing a good path back there to the stone and within two days of that the crane showed up without my knowledge. When I went back there several days later it was standing tall. Many thanks to whomever. They did reset it slightly off center about 1/2 inch to the south, but maybe that is not a problem. Who knows where the center of balance on a monument that large is anyway.

The all metal historical marker next to Nick Davis Road sustained no damage because it was not close enough to falling trees to be harmed. There was also a green road sign that said: NICK DAVIS MONUMENT. It was twisted and bent and needs to have a new base installed.

Roadside Historical Marker prior to the Tornado.

Roadside Historical Marker in the distance after the Storm.
The above photo was made before any efforts to clear the land were made. However some trees had been partly cut away to clear Nick Davis Road of trees lying in the road. Notice all these trees fell north to northeast. This is the same storm that hit the Andrews Cemetery mapped above and details included below but those trees fell to the southeast. This is some ten miles as a crow flies northeast of the Andrews Cemetery. Accordingly the damage the center of this storm was about 500 yards east along Nick Davis Road so that really leaves me tangled in thought about direction of the spin of the tornado and multiple vortexes. Anyway I attempted to explain the event in the Andrews Cemetery right or wrong. These were not typical large spin event tornados. They appeared to be very wide, deep black/orange in color because I was watching this tornado when I looked out the window of a basement shelter about 1.5 miles southeast.

Nick Davis Monument Roadside Historical Marker after the tornado
The above photo was made after some efforts to clear the area. Much work remains though in the area as we can see in this photo and the part of the cemetery to our right our of our view. There is now a clear path to the stone monument from the road. It is about 40 feet wide and all the way back to the monument. Update: moneys from tornado damage must have been provided here as the grounds have now been restored of all the pits from rootballs and the premises now kept mowed. So the main difference is after the tornado there are no more trees in the cemetery. Great ending here.

Turning now our attention to the Andrews Cemetery which was also hard hit. This cemetery is in the French's Mill area along Highway 72. This cemetery is another site of major damage. I will detail one of the remarkable events of this storm. That is what happened to the J.D. Thomas monument.

This photo was of the standing J.D. Thomas monument prior to the storm. Notice the large Red Oak Tree behind the stone about 6 feet from the stone.

This photo above  was taken 27 Sep 2010 when this stone was standing. Unfortunately this cemetery endured the brunt of the Hackleburg Tornado on 27 Apr 2011 at about 4:30 P.M. in the afternoon. The large Red Oak Tree behind the stone was uprooted destroying this grave and the memorial. The memorial plunged about 4 feet down into the large pit created when the root ball of the tree flipped up into the air as the tree fell. The little footstone barely seen behind the tree was crushed into the ground when the tree fell on it and is no longer visible.

This snapshot was taken after the EF5 Tornado of 27 Apr 2011 uprooted the large Red Oak tree just east of this stone.

This snapshot above was taken after the Tornado uprooted a large Red Oak tree just east of this stone. The tree is shown intact in the first above photo. This event created a large pit and the memorial stone plunged into the sink 4+ feet down into the crevice. This stone was in severe danger of disappearing underground as the giant root ball dissolved (from the weather) back into the pit. It would have gradually covered the stone forever as the dirt melted away and fell back into the pit. Any visitor after that visiting here with a grave listing from a historical book would have been perplexed as to what happened to the monument.

It was a major effort to salvage this stone because of the depth of the pit and the size of the stone. There was serious danger to the salvage crew because the root ball was capable of caving off and burying anyone attempting to salvage the stone. Due care was taken to prevent that. I went there with a tripod lift and added a strap around the stone and lifted it back up to the surface with the block and tackle. Unfortunately I was unable to salvage the base. It was upside down sticking down into the soft brown muck which amounted to the remains of the grave so I left it and it will be covered in respect for the deceased. Another base can be secured from scraps from the nearby French's Millstone, (building seen in the distance in one of the photos) an operation manufacturing cut limestone blocks about 400 yards to the northeast of this cemetery. They have many limestone scraps that could be made into a base for this stone at no cost.

J.D. Thomas 1874 - 1936 - memorial stone after salvaging the top section from the pit.  It is stained red from the clay of the ground around it and it will be several months before rain washes all that away. It was down in the hole to our right.

So now we are made aware of another reason why some of our old tombstones are disappearing. As a consequence of very violent storms. Historical preservationist are in agreement that trees are generally bad for cemeteries and this presentation certainly bears that out.

A Cedar tree that narrowly missed the Andrews Monument in the Andrews Cemetery. This is the oldest stone here.

The Andrews Monument can be seen indicated with the two yellow pointers among other storm damage from an EF5 Tornado - 27 Apr 2011 about 4:20 PM. A trailer park was abolished 400 yards to the east killing many residents.

Notice the Andrews memorial (center of the above last photo) just to the right of the splintered cedar tree. The tornado felled this Cedar tree close by & it barely missed this stone. However most of the top of the cedar was broken off separately and swept up into the debris field and eventually fell some 150 feet out into the field completely away from the cemetery. All the trees fell in a southeasterly direction indicating the tornado was swirling clockwise and the southeast part of the vortex (Swirl) hit this cemetery on its south side. This indicates the center of the vortex was just to the north of this cemetery assuming this tornado did not have multiple vortexes. Well this may be too complex for my simple analogy so that analogy is in the for what is is worth column. Reading this my weather man could say brilliant, or be laughing at me. Anyway I made as good a grade as they in studying some of these subjects.

My unscientific graphic which may portray the storm path and direction though I now believe this tornado had multiple swirls and those varied all over the path.

This is my very rough graphic estimate of how the tornado may have affected the Andrews Cemetery. The National Weather Service named this the Hackleburg Tornado after killed many people, demolished many homes, the School, the Town and major churches there, but this was 90+ miles northeast from Hackleburg, but was the same storm. Here in this area in Limestone and Madison County there were much more expensive assets in its path. Namely hundreds of 3,000+  square foot homes due to this area having a high per capita income that has always ranked high in the national records.
Some of you are wondering why more is not being done to fix the above problems. It was early on and the folks were taken care of first. I am doing more than my little part. In our society of multicultural existence we do not have folks that join together in projects like this anymore, because it is so easy for many of us to point out that these are not my ancestors graveyards therefore I don't care. I am pleased at what I see was being done for the hapless people that suffered losses from the above storms though and know that ugly thinking did not prevail there. After they are taken care of I remain as usual wondering why we don't care more for the historical relics all around us that helps give us meaning to our existence and keeps us connected to the past. Storm damage crew without my knowledge did show up and remove the downed trees and repair the  grounds.
 C. Wayne Austin, 20 Jul 2011.