Wetumpka Moving Forward a Year After Devastating Tornado

Touchdown was at 2:52 p.m., 3 miles southwest of the city, according to the National Weather Service. The path, 700 yards wide, stretched 18.1 miles, ending 4 miles northeast of Eclectic when the storm dissipated at 3:15 p.m.

by Marty Roney, Montgomery Advertiser, Ala. / January 21, 2020

(TNS) — Janice Vance rode it out in her bedroom closet, and when her Marshall Street home began to shake she thought she “… was going to see Jesus.”

“I opened the door and my bedroom was the worst hit room in the house,” she said Thursday. Vance is a registered nurse working in home health. She rebuilt her home after the Wetumpka tornado and is still settling in after moving back about two months ago. “There was no roof. I could see the sky. There were about 30 boards in my bedroom, I guess from the roof. I had a storage building in the backyard. It was gone. There were leaves and mud everywhere.”

It’s been a year since a powerful EF-2 tornado, packing winds of 135 mph, struck the city.

The facts are cold: Touchdown was at 2:52 p.m., some three miles southwest of the city, according to National Weather Service data. The path, 700 yards wide, stretched 18.1 miles, ending four miles northeast of Eclectic when the storm dissipated at 3:15 p.m. near Holly Mill Road just before it would have crossed Lake Martin.

The tally had 109 dwellings damaged with 16 being destroyed and 23 receiving major damage, numbers from the Elmore County Emergency Management Agency show.

There were four injuries. There were no fatalities.

“That’s the takeaway,” Mayor Jerry Willis said Friday. “As powerful as this tornado was, there was no loss of life. In the minutes, hours and days after the tornado, that’s what struck me, that there was no loss of life.

“We are forever thankful for that.”

The city has made remarkable progress in the recovery. West Wetumpka was the hardest hit area.

Dozens of homes and buildings had to be razed. The Wetumpka Police Department headquarters building was destroyed, as was the Fain Center, which houses the city’s senior citizens programs. First Presbyterian Church, an iconic downtown landmark, was destroyed. Across Bridge Street, the missions and youth building at First Baptist Church was so heavily damaged it had to be demolished.

Mountains of debris were removed. But still there are stark reminders. Vast swaths, particularly along the banks of the Coosa River, were denuded of trees. Vacant lots stretch block after block.

Here and there are mute reminders of what happened. A piece of sheet metal wrapped around the limbs of a lonesome tree. You have to be careful walking since the ground is pockmarked by holes and divots where trees and shrubs once grew.

Vance’s bright blue home sits alone on the block, almost serving as a cheerful reminder of better days on the way.

“I love my new home,” she said. “It has the same square footage, but the floor plan has been redesigned. It’s sad that all the trees are gone. Before I could see the river a little bit, but I couldn’t see the bridge at all.

“People tell me I have the best view in west Wetumpka.”

Her contractor convinced her to build a wraparound deck, to take advantage of the now unobstructed views of the river and the graceful arches of the Bibb Graves Bridge.

David and Susan Oehlman had to move away from their home at 105 Cotton St. The family had lived there 24 years. David Oehlman is a long-haul trucker and was on a run when the storm hit. Susan and the couple’s two sons were home at the time.

“We really took a hit,” David Oehlman said. “But thankfully no one was hurt. Mayor Willis called me and told me the house was going to have to be demolished. It was bulldozed.”

They moved to Prattville.

“We love Prattville. It’s a great city with great people,” he said. “But we still miss 105 Cotton St. Something like this changes everything. The little things mean more. You’re more thankful. And when you see on the news where a tornado hits, or something similar, your heart really goes out to those people. Because you know, you know what they are going through.”

Vance agrees that things have changed.

“I probably have some PTSD from the storm,” she said. “I used to not stress about things. Now I stress about things. When it’s bad weather, I get nervous. I spent last Saturday glued to WSFA.”

Still, she is almost giddy when walking through her new home. She tells a Montgomery Advertiser reporter about the damage of the old home, as she scrolls through pictures on her iPhone. The kitchen received heavy damage, but nearby glass candlesticks sitting on a credenza were not moved.

“It lasted 20, 25 seconds,” she said. “You don’t think that much damage can be done in that little bit of time.”

Time. That’s the most valuable resource now, Willis said.

“I think we have made progress, great progress,” he said. “I think Wetumpka is stronger because of the storm. We have always been a close knit community, but this really pulled us together. We joined in and helped one another. That’s the spirit that got us through all of this. And that’s the spirit that will continue to see us through.

“I was told that day, that recovery is a marathon, it’s not a sprint. We are still running that marathon. Realistically, I feel we are 90 to 95 percent complete in the recovery itself. We may need another six months to, say, 18 months to be completely recovered.”

The community did rally in the wake of the storm as neighbor helped neighbor and stranger helped stranger. Donations to the Elmore County Disaster Relief Fund reached $226,000. That money was distributed to 108 families or individuals. Not only were victims of the Wetumpka storm served, but money was also given to victims of the March tornado in Titus and a straight-line wind event in the Elmore-Coosada area that occurred in May.

“Due to the generosity of many, we were able to help many,” said Elmore County District Judge Glenn Goggans, who chaired the committee that directed the relief effort. “Every dollar, every penny, that was collected was disbursed. Of course, the level of damage varied from one person’s property to another. We weren’t able to make them whole, but hopefully we were able to help them out. To help them on the road to recovery.”

That marathon thing again that the mayor talks about.

On Thursday, the sounds of construction could be heard at First Presbyterian, as rebuilding continues. The congregation wants the new church to be as close in appearance of the old church as possible, given new building practices and codes. A framework of steel I-beams form the skeleton of the bell tower.

The tower and its progress serves as a benchmark of sorts for Wetumpka residents. They long for the day when the church’s tower takes its rightful spot in the landscape.

“To a lot of us, that white church tower at the foot of the bridge is Wetumpka,” said Wetumpka native Rhonda Grant. “It’s always been there. We’ll know things are back to normal when we can see the bell tower.”

Contact Montgomery Advertiser reporter Marty Roney at mroney@gannett.com.

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