Days after tornadoes ravaged through the South, unleashing most of its fury on the state of Alabama, the sky was the clearest blue. Beautiful, lush greenery framed the majority of the Alabama leg of I-20 West headed into Birmingham from Atlanta. The beaming sun showed no signs of Mother Nature’s previous unrest. At Exit 123 onto Arkadelphia Road, the traffic was robust, probably a standard sight for most cities at mid-afternoon on a Friday.
Stopping off for gas at the local station, the cars lined up at the pumps, while odd, weren’t immediately problematic. It wasn’t until the paramilitary guy directing it all explained that gas was pretty scarce in these parts as a result of the tornado that reality started to sink in. A few more minutes later, the sign to the right indicating Pratt City to the left placed the aftermath of disaster front and center.
At first, a fallen tree near the stop sign was the first indicator that all had not been right. Venturing further in, policemen directed traffic to make up for failed traffic lights. The first buildings encountered were partially damaged, with, in some instances, the front end missing and, in others, the side or the back. Those were the lucky structures.
Traveling along Hibernian Street (pronounced High-Ber-Nee-Ah), the area’s main lifeline and one of the hardest hit streets in the area, it’s clear that Pratt City was a humble community that had yet to see the re-gentrification efforts that had hit other urban areas.
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Many of the structures destroyed were far from new. It’s safe to say that, pre-storm, some were already barely standing. At the more rural end of the street, houses, as documented through photographs and news reports, were completely demolished, with few structures intact. Clothes, personal mementos, electronics and other signs of people’s lives were strewn about with no rhyme or reason.
Some people could be found knee-deep in the tornado’s aftermath, trying to pick up the pieces of their shattered lives. Those with greater means had moving trucks to cart off their valuables. Their spirits spoke of amazing resilience. In conversations about the storm, many expressed their gratitude to be alive to sift through their belongings. Others they knew were not so lucky. That day, the word was that eight bodies had been recovered. Many buildings were marked to indicate search and rescue efforts. Pratt City had been through two previous tornadoes in the 1970s and 1990s but a longtime resident, a nurse who had survived them all, said this one was the worst.
The National Guard, many of them white, stood watch but, though their assault rifles were clearly visible, they were friendly and kind. This was not the Alabama of old where racists refused help to African-Americans even during a national crisis like the Great Depression. In fact, kindness characterized the mood of the day. Strangers frequently offered those walking and traveling by car water and snacks. Three women proudly sporting their Delta Sigma Theta gear pulled a wagon filled with water and chips toward Scott Elementary School on Hibernian. The lifeline of the area’s relief efforts, the former Scott Elementary School is where Alabama Governor Robert Bentley and his caravan stopped before surveying the damage and where Dr. Tommie L. Lewis, pastor of Bethel Baptist Church, which was destroyed in the storm, was a constant presence. There, the spirit of community filled the air. Outside, men like Raheem Ali, a law student originally from Atlanta, brought in grills, hot dogs, hamburger meat and buns, purchased with money raised among friends, to feed the hungry. Inside, there was an even more elaborate meal and whole classrooms set up with clothing, shoes, toiletries, a sea of water and other needs.
Departing from the images often seen on the news, where African-Americans are the victims and white Americans are the helpers, Pratt City was a throwback to yesteryear, filled with the community bonding that elderly black people often praise in their tales. It wasn’t just the women pitching in either. Strong black men were everywhere, lifting heavy supplies off of trucks and leaving them in rooms for many of the women to sort through and organize.
WATCH NBC NEWS COVERAGE OF THE DEVASTATION:
Named for Daniel Pratt, who manufactured cotton gins and supported the Confederacy during the Civil War, Pratt City was largely an industrial area, with several factories in the area. As a result, it held a natural allure for African Americans looking for work. It had its dark side, as well. It was here, also, where the vicious convict-leasing system of Jim Crow that is the subject of Douglas Blackmon’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Slavery by Another Name, thrived. Often black men who were falsely imprisoned would be released to companies that literally worked them to death. There was no word if the cemetery full of unmarked graves had survived the storm.
With President Obama promising the government’s support and FEMA actually effective from day one, Pratt City is no Hurricane Katrina. Birmingham City Council President Roderick Royal, who lives in adjacent Smithfield Estates, and other officials were on site, recognizable and responsive to storm victims. With continued support from the outside, Pratt City is posed to bounce back, slowly but surely. And, this time, for many of its tornado survivors, it might even prove to be better than worse.