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Can America's 'best hometown' survive?

By Phil Gast, CNN
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • April tornado nearly wipes Hackleburg, Alabama, off the map
  • Tornado was one of 62 Alabama twisters on April 27 that killed 244 people
  • Hackleburg is waiting on employers' decisions, hoping it will survive

Hackleburg, Alabama (CNN) -- In a small town that has lost almost everything, there is no shortage of questions.

First came the spiritual and philosophical questions -- the ones residents of this community of nearly 1,500 faced immediately after the 210 mph winds of a massive April tornado nearly wiped them off the map.

Was it God's wrath or natural tragedy? As residents rounded up and burned or shipped the debris that was once their town, they mourned their 18 neighbors who died, and weighed how to feel about their fate.

About 150 people left town. Those who remained held tightly to each other. And now, more than two months later, they await answers to another set of questions: practical, bricks-and-mortar decisions that will shape the town's future and affect their daily lives.

Hackleburg's two schools are gone. So is its only grocery store. Its only pharmacy. Only doctor's office. And major employer.

Will Wrangler -- the "Mercedes Benz" of Hackleburg -- rebuild its giant distribution center?

Will the Piggly Wiggly -- "the Pig," as most folks call it -- come back?

What will happen if they don't?

Once named the best hometown in America, Hackleburg now is littered with building foundations; about 500 homes were damaged or destroyed.

Its real foundation, however, is its people. Despite these trying times, residents insist, "We'll be back."

"Small-town people are resilient," said Dr. Keith Morrow, the town doctor.

You can see the signs: Morrow is hanging on, treating patients in a converted tractor-trailer. The pharmacy will rebuild. A local church is changing its name to embrace everyone in the community. And, on May 27, exactly one month after the EF-5 tornado, the townspeople came together on the high school football field to celebrate the graduation of 48 students.

Local leaders are trying to tap into that resiliency to develop a blueprint for the town's future. Just days ago, they met to brainstorm what the Hackleburg of the future should be.

The town that lost so much in the tornado's path is seeking a new direction.

Seeing patients in an 18-wheeler

The Hackleburg tornado was one of 62 twisters and storms that swept through Alabama on April 27, killing 244 people. The massive damage in cities such as Tuscaloosa and Birmingham drew network news crews.

Hackleburg, not so much.

"My heart breaks for them," Hackleburg Police Chief Kenny Hallmark said of the larger cities. "But our situation is worse. There you can leave (and go) four or five blocks and get back to normalcy. Here, we lost everything."

For Morrow, the town's sole physician, starting over meant bringing in a camper and an 18-wheeler. It means walking out to the cars of patients who can't climb the steps to the tractor-trailer, where he now does examinations.

The camper serves as Morrow's office and triage center. In the trailer, patients await the doctor in makeshift stalls, a modicum of privacy provided by a curtain stretched across a PVC pipe.

Morrow's former clinic sat on what is now a cleared foundation, only a few feet away. The tornado also leveled his office in nearby Phil Campbell, where 26 people died. "This is almost the death of two more small towns in America," he said.

Morrow lost 40 patients on April 27 and has seen anxiety and depression among those who survived. Some complain of respiratory problems from dust and storm debris. One lost a dental cap to the incredible force of the storm.

Patients talk to him about loss and an altered sense of reality. With homes and trees gone, Hackleburg doesn't look the same.

Nurse Kathy Mayhall recalls crying with a patient over the town's ordeal. "It just all got to me."

Morrow, 55, has practiced in Hackleburg for about 25 years, healing patients' minds and bodies.

He's planning to rebuild.

"It would have been easier to move," he said. "You do what's right."

Some survivors believe the storm was the result of natural forces; others see it as some form of divine punishment, said James Lindsey, a private practice psychologist in Russellville, about 18 miles north of Hackleburg.

"People are very shaken," he said. "They have lived in an area their whole lives. There's almost a sense of guilt and loss."

They don't ask for help.They are prideful people.
--Frances Barnwell, co-owner of Howell's Barbecue

People in the region rarely seek out a mental health professional. Lindsey said 95% of his referrals have come from doctors. When townspeople do seek counseling, he said, "Some will say, 'I didn't know that kind of help existed.' "

"They don't ask for help," said Frances Barnwell, who co-owns Howell's Barbecue, a small restaurant. "They are prideful people."

'We understand the emotion and the anxiety'

The tornadic trail of destruction left 31 of Hackleburg's 32 businesses in ruin or damaged.

"We were hit in the gut," said Hallmark, police chief in this town about 25 miles east of the Mississippi border. Most of the police department's building was destroyed. Still standing are the jail cells built before World War II; during the storm, several people huddled safely inside.

Some businesses, including Grace's Place restaurant and an auto parts store, will not rebuild. Others, such as the Dollar General and a beauty and health salon, are coming back. The town's historic hardware store is being repaired. Temporary classrooms have sprouted where the schools once stood. And River Birch Homes, which makes manufactured housing and is Hackleburg's second largest employer, survived the storm largely unscathed.

The big question is the Wrangler facility.

Thirteen of 150 employees were at the plant when the tornado struck . One was killed. The building is a mass of shattered metal.

Since 1981, the Hackleburg distribution center has shipped pallets of Wrangler clothing to Walmart, Target and other retailers around the country. One of five in the nation, the center was well-run and efficient, said Sam Tucker, vice president of human resources for Jeanswear Americas. VF Corp. owns Jeanswear Americas and Wrangler.

The company has kept 135 workers employed at two smaller facilities nearby. But VF hasn't announced whether it will rebuild in Hackleburg.

"We understand the desire and hopes of the people of Hackleburg for us to rebuild," said Tucker. "We understand the emotion and the anxiety."

Tucker declined to discuss VF's analysis of the facility. But this week, the company extended its evaluation period and said it would announce its intentions by the end of July.

"We understand the interest in this announcement and its significance," Eric Wiseman, chairman and chief executive, said in a statement. "However, our process for reviewing such decisions is thorough and requires more time to complete. We have explored many different scenarios, and rebuilding in Hackleburg remains an option."

City and community leaders have operated a "full-court press." An unofficial Facebook page calls for the company to rebuild; Hackleburg's mayor says the return of the facility is critical.

Some city officials are concerned VF Corp. will consolidate distribution operations rather than reopen in Hackleburg. Other leaders believe the center will be rebuilt, or a smaller version will replace it.

Town and state officials said they are offering incentives to keep Wrangler in Hackleburg, including a local tax abatement, retraining, utilities relocation and other measures. Gov. Robert Bentley and U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions have joined the lobbying effort.

"I'm optimistic they will rebuild," said state Sen. Roger Bedford, a leader of the lobbying campaign. "They are our Mercedes Benz."

Hackleburg has already felt the impact of textile corporation decisions. It lost about 400 jobs when its sewing center closed in 1999. That operation moved to Honduras. Today, Wrangler jeans are made in Mexico and elsewhere overseas.

With the town's business core wiped out, Hackleburg has lost revenue from sales, ad valorem and occupational taxes. The town receives a crucial $100,000 annually in occupational taxes related to Wrangler.

Town officials say they have enough money, including grants from a Native American tribe and a regional government association, to fund the city another six months to a year. The city's annual budget is about $350,000, and there is concern about possible layoffs among the dozen or so staffers if business-related revenues don't recover soon.

Mayor Pro Tem Barry McCarley, whose brother-in-law died in a tornado elsewhere in the county on April 27, estimates between 150 and 200 displaced residents left Hackleburg, at least temporarily.

"If people see them (Wrangler) coming back, they might be inclined to come back sooner," said McCarley, whose business card features the date 4-27-11 in a circle and the motto, "Rebuilding one day at a time, bigger and better."

Will 'the Pig' will rebuild?

At the Hackleburg Piggly Wiggly, some employees huddled in a meat locker while the tornado destroyed the store, the nearby pharmacy, Dollar General and Dr. Morrow's offices.

The owner of the Piggly Wiggly is weighing several factors before deciding whether to rebuild.

Tom Williams, whose mother lives in Hackleburg, said his store was profitable. He is doing a market study, however, on the population base and other factors. He cited high unemployment (11.9%) in Marion County and worries that residents will get insurance payments and settle elsewhere.

Putting up another Piggly Wiggly would be a $2.5 million investment, Williams said. The return of schools is an essential factor in his decision. Marion County Superintendent Ryan Hollingsworth has said the schools, which have about 475 students, will rebuild -- with new classroom technology and enhanced storm safety rooms.

The "Pig" is important to Hackleburg residents, who now have to drive 20 minutes to buy groceries. While Phil Campbell lost more residents to the tornado, its business district -- including a Piggly Wiggly owned by Williams -- largely survived.

An epiphany, and a new name

As a member of the Hackleburg rebuilding committee, the Rev. Clint Knowles, 44, is helping envision the future.

He and his church have long tended to townspeople's spiritual and mental health.

"Everybody is looking for a perspective on it," he said of the tornado. "I say, God is not punishing us. That is not the God we know."

Faith is a bedrock in Hackleburg, which was established in the 1800s and named for thick brush called "hackles," according to Alabama Pioneers, a genealogy website.

Knowles and his wife, Elizabeth, lead the flock at the Hackleburg Church of God of Prophecy, which was nearly leveled by the storm.

The church is rebuilding, with an eye on first completing a family life center to give children in the town a place to gather.

Knowles had an epiphany while watching townspeople worship under two tents the church set up after the storm. The pastor asked denominational leaders and members of his board if he could change the church's name. They tearfully agreed.

Hackleburg Community Church was born.

"We're going to service all needs," Knowles said.

That kind of community spirit was obvious when, in 2007, members of the church's youth group submitted a video for a Country Music Television contest.

A homespun mix of Southern stereotypes, local landmarks and earnest community spirit, the video featured several local teens, including the character of "Bucky," whose tribute to businesses includes a salon where he gets his sexy farmer's tan. It also touted Country Music Hall of Fame member Sonny James, Hackleburg's favorite son.

The effort paid off.

"CMT Homegrown" fans voted Hackleburg the best hometown in America.

The town's landscape has changed dramatically since the whimsical video was produced.

Trees are like stubble on fields of vast emptiness. Pieces of metal, virtual weapons when set free by howling winds, remain twisted around tree trunks. Weeks after the storm, trucks roll in and out of a giant burn pit, where destroyed trees and their massive stumps are reduced to ash.

We need the entire country to rethink the value of rural America.You've got to identify hidden pearls in each community.
--David Thornell, Northwest Alabama Economic Development Alliance

"It's depressing every time you come out of the house," said Ray McCarley, who co-owns Panther Food Mart, the town's convenience store.

McCarley soldiered on, fixing up the damaged store and reopening a dining area known for its made-from-scratch biscuits.

The town is in an "in between stage," said Knowles, transitioning from debris removal to rebuilding.

The recovery process will take years. But there are positive signs. Foundations for a few new houses have been laid, and more are coming. People say there is buzz about possible new businesses.

Knowles says it will be a journey of faith.

"We have to find the hope of God in this."

The value of rural America

As in many communities in small-town America, Hackleburg's once-vibrant downtown had seen better days. Some stores had already closed or moved to the busier U.S. 43, a short drive away. The tornado helped finish off others. An "X" painted on exteriors signifies a wrecking ball or bulldozer likely will be the final indignity.

The tornado gave Hackleburg a clean slate, literally. But it is a challenge for the town to set a vision when much of its economic future is in limbo.

David Thornell, who helps seek businesses at the Northwest Alabama Economic Development Alliance, said the town may find opportunities in the wood products and auto manufacturing sectors.

"We need the entire country to rethink the value of rural America," he said. "You've got to identify hidden pearls in each community."

Earlier this month, Hackleburg had the first of four meetings to envision its future. The Federal Emergency Management Agency and Alabama economic officials led the session, which was meant to generate ideas and boost morale. Townspeople were encouraged to be creative.

Ideas tossed about included new restaurants, a medical plaza and a park/entertainment area downtown.

"I think we're going to make it," said town council member James Anglin.

That spirit was palpable as townspeople gathered to salute its younger generation one month after the tornado struck.

On May 27, 48 proud Hackleburg Panthers graduates received their diplomas on the school's football field, cleared of debris that had pierced and matted the sod.

Seniors sat on folding chairs on the turf; behind them was the shattered gymnasium, which normally houses graduation.

It was the first major opportunity the town had to come together after the destruction. "It was an unbelievable time," said Hollingsworth, the superintendent.

He had made the call not to open the schools on the day the EF-5 tornado came to town. The graduation, he said, was a celebration of the students' achievements.

But this year, it meant even more.