A tornado killed 23 people in this Alabama town. Its residents say it could have been worse
Updated 11:03 AM ET, Fri March 8, 2019
Beauregard, Alabama (CNN)Trying to figure out what happened over the phone was torture.
A murderous EF-4 tornado had leveled her parents' neighborhood in this rural swath of southeast Alabama. Krystal Stenson-Garrett -- two hours north at her kitchen table in Birmingham -- was shaking.
She was on the phone with her cousin, Montasha Preston, who was in Beauregard, frantically trying to reach their childhood homes, three doors down from each other.
Preston couldn't reach the neighborhood by car, so she got out and ran a half mile, hopping over downed trees and ducking under power lines.
Stenson-Garrett, 35, felt helpless. She pressed for answers, but Preston didn't have any yet. She would call back when she had more information.
Then the calls started coming.
The first brought good news. Stenson-Garrett's nephews, Eric, 17, and Dillian, 14, had been found. The storm had yanked them from her parents' mobile home and tossed them across the street. They were hurt -- Eric badly -- but they were alive.
Preston called back. They had found Stenson-Garrett's dad.
"Thank God," she said.
"No, not thank God, Krystal," Preston replied. "He didn't make it."
In the next call, Stenson-Garrett learned the twister had also taken her mother and only brother. In the final call, she was told her uncle was dead, too.
Of the 23 people killed in the deadliest US tornado in almost six years, four were her kin.
Rescue worker: 'It's all been put in a blender and blown for miles'
Days after the tornado, residents in this neighborhood along Lee Road 39 are struggling to process the devastation around them. There are areas a mile wide where no structure survived.
The tornado smashed homes into each other, combining their contents into mammoth piles of wreckage. Brick homes are missing their roofs. Steel beams are twisted like shoelaces. Foundations sit empty like basketball courts. Wrecked cars and riding mowers rest atop mounds of rubble. Tall trees have been reduced to 6-foot mangled stumps.
"You know the area, and you get to a point where you don't know the area anymore," said Mike Pooler, a drone systems instructor who has been working with a makeshift search-and-rescue team. "The houses on the hill are now in a pile."
The horizon, long obscured by dense woods, is visible in the distance.
The flotsam from the storm provides a window into the lives it overturned. Baby shoes. Broken china. Shrink-wrapped chickens. Liquor bottles. Shotgun shells. Unopened bills. A coloring book. American flag cornhole bags. Medicine bottles. Lots and lots of photos.
"It's all been put in a blender and it's just been blown for miles all over creation," said Adam Littleton, 40, a bus driver also helping the search team.
Recovery, where it's possible, will take months or longer. The buzz of chainsaws and scent of pine sap are everywhere, but even in this wasteland there's a palpable belief among residents that this town can bounce back, especially the way the community has come together.
Many here will tell you the tornado is God testing them, and He would never put more on them than they can handle.
Survivors are putting aside their own sorrow to help others
The home of James and Stephanie Taunton was rocked so hard they can see daylight between the roof and a bedroom wall.
Their son, Zachary, 5, rode the school bus with one of the child victims, Armondo Hernandez, leaving the beleaguered parents to broach the realities of death with the boy sooner than they'd planned.
As he awaited financial assistance at a Disabled American Veterans table that had set up shop at Providence Baptist Church, James Taunton, 45, bristled at the notion he was a victim.
"We didn't really lose anything. Literally, two miles from my house they have no home," he said. "I feel guilty ... How am I allowed to have my family intact and they're not?"
Stories abound here of people putting aside their own sorrow to help others. Ask them about their losses and they're quick to point to someone who lost more.
As bad as it is, it could've been worse. The tornado struck mid-afternoon Sunday, when many folks were at restaurants, eating lunch after church.
Lee County Coroner Bill Harris, who had to process 23 bodies from his mobile autopsy suite at a local middle school, said the death toll might have been higher if more residents had been home.
Justin Miller of nearby Opelika lost his mother, accountant and novelist Charlotte Miller, in the storm. Though she suffered from arthritis and didn't get around well, she received a steroid injection so she could walk him down the aisle at his wedding. He loved his mama dearly.
"People lost whole families and every belonging," said the 29-year-old. "I want more for them than for us because we're fine. ... We're lucky and blessed because we have that closure and we know what to do."
A teen girl is reunited with her lost pet bunny
At Providence Baptist Church in Opelika on Tuesday, scores of volunteers scrambled to feed folks and organize the stream of clothes, food and cleaning supplies arriving at the church's community center.
Pooler and Bobby Dempsey waited at a tent where volunteers were making tacos for search crews. Pooler, 39, collected his meal and walked toward the church, a tattered white bunny with blue eyes tucked into his left arm.
Dempsey, 41, had found the rabbit under a 4-foot pile of drywall, flooring, shingles and furniture, he said. It was tame, obviously a pet, so the men posted a photo to Facebook.
As church volunteers gathered around, oohing and ahhing over the ball of cuteness, a man came out of the church and flagged down Pooler. They'd found the rabbit's owner.
Euel Partridge, 54, arrived an hour or so later. The bunny belonged to his 16-year-old daughter, Laklyn. She called her Thumper, but Partridge joked that Thumper, of "Bambi" fame, was a boy, so he preferred Bun-Bun.