‘People are here’: Smiths Station residents lean on each other as clean up begins

The tornado flipped Eddie Morgan’s sister’s mobile home, leaving the wheels pointing to the sky. It splintered another relative’s home and chewed at the roof at his mother’s home, leaving it uninhabitable, at least temporarily. His great aunt’s home was destroyed, the contents of her house, now boxed up at City Hall.

Yet, there was Morgan, 67, insisting that it could be so much worse. No one was injured and a swarm of family, friends and volunteers descended on the street his family has long called home. They donned gloves and crawled through the debris of his sister’s motor home, recovering family photographs and mementos the tornado had not shredded. They arranged for hot pizza delivery.

“You hear so much ugly, so much division these days,” said Morgan, the eldest of four. “For people to reach out like this, touching each other with love. It gives me great hope. Black, white, it doesn’t matter. People are here.”

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Bryson Hopper, 8, from Smiths Station, Al., and Mason McCoy, 4, from Motts, Al., lie on a couch cushion together while their families and friends try to find personal items from the overturned mobile home of Vickie Jones on Tuesday, March 5, 2019, in Smiths Station, Al. A tornado landed in the Smiths Station neighborhood on Sunday, March 3, 2019, but Jones and her son were not in their home when the tornado struck their mobile home. Miranda Daniel

That included Bubba Copeland, the city’s mayor, who has been making the rounds since the tornado touched down in this close-knit forested city of 5,000, destroying between 40 to 60 homes and taking down power lines and the town’s tree canopy.

“If there’s anything you need, you call,” Copeland assured Morgan’s mother, the family’s matriarch, Susie Mae Rowell, 85, who has been staying with Morgan and his wife since Sunday. “You need a toothbrush, you need underwear, you need debris picked up. You call.”

Copeland, wearing a dark vest with “Mayor Copeland” and the city’s seal, said he expects more volunteers to arrive on Wednesday and FEMA and insurance companies to arrive soon: “They will help you rebuild, right here on this spot.”

Copeland, elected town mayor in 2016, attended the nearby elementary school. He said he’s never seen anything like the ferocity of the twisters that struck three areas of the town. He and his wife, Angela, and their two daughters began tracking the damage 30 minutes after the last gust subsided.

“It’s just good to be there for the people. A hug and a smile and a ‘we’re going to help you,’ is sometimes all it takes,” Copeland said. “It’s going to take weeks and months for us to rebuild, but we want people to know we’re looking out for them.”

The sheer strength of the wind was evident: two 12-ton air conditioners from West Smiths Station Elementary School were ripped off the roof, landing 30 yards away in a cemetery. Tiles were lifted off the school’s roof, basketball hoops, pole and all, in the school’s athletic field were uprooted and left crumpled. Towering pines were snapped like pretzels.

Also impossible to miss: people who wanted to do something. Trey Goodman, 19, an electrician who lives about two miles from the area in nearby Beauregard, where at least 23 were killed, said he had hoped to pitch in closer to home, but was turned away. Yet his crew was dispatched to the Smiths Station elementary school to get the power back on.

“You just want to get out there and help people where you can,” Goodman said.

Morgan and his siblings were thankful for the help. When Eddie Morgan and his brother, Steve, 63, arrived at the line of family homes behind the elementary school, the damage was so overwhelming “when we made the turn, we about passed out,” Steve Morgan said.

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Eddie Morgan, 67, looks towards what is left of his sister’s mobile home on Tuesday afternoon after a tornado toppled her home on Sunday, March 3, 2019, in Smiths Station, Al. Morgan’s sister, Vickie Jones, 57, a certified nursing assistant, was not at home at the time, and her son made it to his grandmother, Susie Mae Rowell’s, home before the tornado landed on their neighborhood. Miranda Daniel

They had to park at the school and make their way down a hill, because the road was blocked by fallen pine trees.

“Everyone was still breathing and it was just a relief,” Steve Morgan said of his mother and nephew, who escaped the mobile home and ran to his grandmother’s house, just minutes before the mobile home went belly up. “All these things can be replaced.”

Now that the family is recovering, Steve Morgan said, it’s been overwhelmed by the show of support from neighbors — and from complete strangers. A man showed up early Tuesday from Missouri, Morgan said, offering to help with debris removal.

“All day long, there’s been water, pizza, coffee and donuts, blankets, gift cards, you name it,” he said. “We are blessed that folks care about us like that.”

Says the sign at the elementary school: “Leave things better than the way you found them.”

Lesley Clark works out of the McClatchy Washington bureau, covering all things Kentucky for McClatchy’s Lexington Herald-Leader. A former reporter for McClatchy’s Miami Herald, she also spent several years covering the White House.