The News Courier in Athens, Alabama

Tornado Outbreak 2011

November 26, 2011

Thankful to be alive: 'We will have bad memories the rest of our lives'

— Brenda and Tim Smith didn’t hear the sound of a freight train when an EF5 tornado descended on their East Limestone home April 27.

Even as the roof blew off and walls crumbled around them, they didn’t hear a sound.

Brenda and Tim felt only the vibrations as chaos surrounded them because they are deaf.

They have spent seven months displaced from their home and remain nervous about storms, but the Smiths are grateful this Thanksgiving they survived when many did not.

“Tim was home. I’m very lucky he decided to take off (from work). If he did not take the week off, I don’t know what would have happened to me,” Brenda wrote during an email interview. “Maybe I’d be dead.”

Tim, who works for the U.S. Postal Service’s Madison office, and Brenda, a homemaker, met at the Talladega School for the Deaf and married June 28, 1980. They have one daughter, Bonnie, who lives with her husband about a mile from her parents’ home in Tremont Subdivision off Capshaw Road.

On April 27, the Smiths had been watching the weather reports on television and were aware of the brewing storms. Then, when a smaller tornado passed through the area at about 11 a.m., their power went out, leaving them with no way to monitor the storms.

Thinking the worst had passed, the couple went out for lunch but they returned home when their son-in-law told them more storms were headed their way.

They sat without power and with no way of knowing an EF5 twister with 210 mph winds would strike their home at about 4:30 p.m.

“It was very difficult for us. We can’t hear a tornado come,” Brenda wrote. “Tim kept watch out through the window. He yelled at me and said, ‘It looks like a tornado’ so I went and looked out but I didn’t know if that was a tornado because I’ve never seen one.”

But the sight of the massive gray cloud was enough for Brenda: She signed for Tim to get in the closet. Tim was transfixed by the sight before him — until he saw debris flying past the window.

“He ran very fast and got in the closet and held me tight,” Brenda wrote. “We felt the vibration as it hit hard at our house.”

When the tornado had passed, Brenda lifted her head to see sky. The ceiling had been ripped from the closet.

“It destroyed the house, the garage was gone. We lost all our tools and equipment.  We lost all the furniture and two cars,” Brenda wrote. “We cried and were very shocked. We never thought a tornado could hit our house.”

In addition, the tornado wiped out the couple’s University of Alabama football memorabilia.

Before Tim and Brenda could overcome their shock, their neighbor Larry Glover came to check on them. “As we walked through the breakfast room to try to get out, he saw us and asked us if we were OK,” Brenda said. They were uninjured “but our bodies shook and we cried.”

The massive mile-wide twister damaged more than three-quarters of the homes in Tremont Subdivision. In Limestone County, more than 700 homes were hit. Three hundred were damaged or destroyed in Madison County.

Four people died in hard-hit Tanner and East Limestone; nine died in Harvest in Madison County and 241 died statewide.

The Smiths were thankful they survived but coping with the loss of their home would take a toll.

“We do have some bad emotions and it’s very stressful going through the rebuild,” Brenda wrote.

The couple lived with Bonnie for about two weeks until they could find an apartment in Huntsville. Their home should be completed on the same site in late December or early January.

In the meantime, members of the Deaf Ministry at First Baptist Church in Athens, where the Smiths attend, rallied around the couple.

“They’re a wonderful couple,” said pastor Dr. Edwin Jenkins. “They’re a very important part of our church.”

First Baptist congregants wanted to do whatever they could to help, said Robert Trent, who coordinates the Sunday school class for deaf members at First Baptist and often helps interpret between hearing and deaf members.

“A lot of people in the church were coming to me and saying, ‘What can I do?’ People gave gift cards and money, or invited them to dinner so they wouldn’t have to eat out,” Trent said. In addition, church members plan to help restock the house when it is complete.

Linda Williams’ sister, Pam Bumpus, is a member of the Deaf Ministry class and also attended the Talladega School for the Deaf.

At the urging of class members, Linda wrote to Nick Saban, head coach at Alabama, and explained the Smiths were huge fans and had lost everything.

“They live and breathe Alabama football,” Linda said. “All their Alabama stuff is gone.”

Saban sent an autographed photo to the Smiths and the owner of The Frame Gallery matted and framed it at no cost.

Brenda and Tim decided to add a storm shelter in their new home and the Alabama Institute for the Deaf and Blind donated a strobe light that blinks during weather alerts.

Trent said the new home will be larger but he knows it is difficult for Brenda to cope with rebuilding.

“They are fortunate they lived and were not injured but emotionally Brenda was very much injured,” Trent said. 

Brenda admits the added protective measures have not quelled her concerns about being on the same site.

“When we go check on the rebuilding of the house, we always talk about the tornado,” she wrote. “I’m scared to move back in. We will have bad memories for the rest of our lives.”

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