May 03, 2011
By Chris Kowalczyk
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For the better part of the last week, VCU Volleyball Assistant Coach Nathan Baker has made sure to check the news out of Franklin County, Alabama. But he's not keeping track of his high school's baseball scores or eying city council's docket. Instead, Baker is nervously monitoring a growing list of names of people killed by a tornado that decimated his hometown of Phil Campbell.
Located northwest Alabama, Phil Campbell occupies four square miles of Franklin County, roughly an hour and a half from the Tennessee border. A town of 1,100, there are few strangers. Families are close. Neighbors practically help raise each other's kids. The quaint, southern town named for a railroad builder has stood for more than 125 years, but it took just minutes to virtually destroy it.
In the early evening hours of April 27, an EF-4 tornado – the second strongest classification - with winds approaching 200 mph, ripped a 12-mile stretch of death and destruction through Franklin County. The tornado was part of a larger system of twisters that killed 250 people last week in Alabama and Georgia.
Phil Campbell was essentially leveled, as the tornado sped down Main Street like a locomotive. Whole neighborhoods, the water and police departments, banks, stores and other buildings were flattened as if they were made of Lincoln Logs. It has been estimated that 40 percent of all homes in town have been destroyed. As of Monday, 26 people were reported dead. More are still missing.
Nearly all of Baker's immediate family still lives there. His mother, Linda, was able to place a call Wednesday night to let Baker know that she was okay. But in a town without power and phone lines, it took until Friday before Baker knew that his brother and the rest of his extended family were safe.
However, when tragedy strikes a town as small as Phil Campbell, it's impossible not to be affected. Baker's childhood friend and classmate, Michael Morgan, and his wife were killed. So was one of his neighbors and substitute teachers, Patricia Gentry, as well as a number of classmates. Every day, Baker nervously checks the names of the deceased and hopes he's seen the worst.
Baker says he expects the town to be without power for weeks. He offered to bring his mother to Richmond, but she insisted on staying in Alabama as the town looks to rebuild. Baker considered going down to Alabama to help the recovery efforts, but a back injury has left him incapable of providing physical support.
Meanwhile, he says his younger brother Anthony has been active in the recovery efforts.
"My brother has been my hero in this whole thing," Baker said. "He's out there from 6 a.m. until 10 p.m. when the curfew comes into effect. He's cutting trees, trying to find people's belongings, pictures, whatever it is. He's also been one of the people who has had to pull out some bodies too, so it's been tough on him, but he's done a good job."
In the meantime, Baker is calling for people to pledge their support to the storm-ravaged area. The Red Cross is on the ground in Phil Campbell, but FEMA has not yet reached the region, in large part, Baker says, because of the scope of destruction in Tuscaloosa, Ala.
"I just want to encourage Sheriff Potter and the local emergency crews," Baker said. "They are doing an outstanding job and their continued efforts have not gone unnoticed. They are a blessing to the town of Phil Campbell and the surrounding communities."
Baker grew up a half mile from Phil Campbell High School. He and his friends used to sneak into the gym to play basketball late into the night. He would help the school to an area championship and a state ranking, but those memories seem pretty far away right now. His childhood neighborhood has been flattened. The school is severely damaged. Now, he just wants to help Phil Campbell get back on its feet.
"Growing up in Alabama, you know that threat of tornados is always there, but it's never happened and when it finally does, the recovery efforts are what they're just not prepared for," Baker said. "You think you're prepared and then when it happens they see how far away they were to get there. That's where everybody can help out."
To find out how you can help, contact the American Red Cross.