The storms of April 27th took a heavy toll from Elmore County and the Lake Martin Area. As we have seen from the outpouring of volunteers and aid, there is something special about the People who call this area home, and though the scars may remain for years to come, we will rebuild all that we need in relatively short time. I am genuinely proud to be from here, to stand next to my neighbors and friends, and to see the spirit and brotherhood that we all share at such a difficult point in our history.
Among the losses are three that we will never forget, and never be able to replace; Mrs. Katherine Massa of Dadeville, a beloved member of our Community and a tireless volunteer at the Dadeville Library. Alice Herren Lee, my Aunt, and a US Postal Service retiree who had spent her life serving the Public and her family. And my Mother, Becky Herren Woodall who loved her cabin on Lake Martin as much as any place on Earth, and moved here permanently shortly after the death of my Father in 1998. It is notable to me that all three of these women spent their entire lives serving and giving to others. We will miss them dearly, but remember them with a smile and a sense of pride that we were allowed to know and love them, and learn from them while they were here.
The night of the storms found me racing back to Bard’s Lane, accompanied by my closest friends, Earl and Charla Baumgardner, and encountering a small chain of miracles among all the chaos and tragedy of that night. I had frantically tried to call anyone I knew who was closer to the cabin than I was, trying to find out if “Bebeck” (Mom) and “A” (Alice) were ok. My wife had called our friends Katie and Nelson Cooper, who lived nearby, and Katie had gone out with a flashlight to check on the ladies. I had gotten in touch with Wade Jones, a good friend, who happened to be out checking for damage and immediately headed towards our place.
As we approached Children’s Harbor, Highway 63 was closed, but after some persuasion and compassion, we were allowed to travel on, with caution. Even before we reached the Kowaliga, the destruction was evident. Power lines and poles completely blocked the road, and I was telling Earl and Charla that I was going to walk from here (still several miles) when a car pulled alongside of us. It was David Sturdivant, a longtime friend of ours and CFO of Russell Lands. David had come out immediately to survey the damage and offer whatever help he and Russell Lands could provide. I had not seen David in 2-3 years. He told us to follow him, and took us off the road, around the danger, and across the bridge towards our cabin.
When we arrived, we found my friend Larry Bodie of the Ourtown Volunteer Fire Department cutting trees from the road, and Tim Wheeles, another friend and Alex City Fireman beginning the trek to get to the cabin and find Bebeck and Alice. I was told that Wade and Katie Cooper were somewhere beyond the trees, trying to get to the cabin and bring the ladies out. As the lightening flashed, I could see the severity, but I knew we were in good hands. Earl and I immediately set off towards the cabin. With each flash of lightening, the reality of the situation began to sink in, and I eventually knew I could not go on. The damage was so severe that it took minutes to go feet. After 30 minutes of climbing over, under, and around trees and damage, we had covered only about 40 yards, and the cabin was still hundreds of yards away. Earl took me back to the road, then set off back into the destruction to find my mother. I wouldn’t see him again for 4-5 hours. Charla was there to comfort and encourage me, and she kept me calm, sane, and calm during the whole ordeal. At one point I had tried to go back into the woods. Wade happened to be there as I was frantically trying to find a flashlight. He put his hands on my shoulders and talked some sense into me, that they didn’t need to be worrying about me on top of what they were dealing with, and it made immediate sense. They were professionals, I was an emotional wreck. I trust them with everything I have, everything, and I needed to stay out of their way. I put my arms around Charla and leaned on her the rest of the night. She’s 1/3 my size, but her energy and love kept me on my feet through the entire night.
Around 3am, Rock (Tim Wheeles) came out of the woods and I knew something was wrong. He looked angry, and I knew that if he were here, and not back in there, something had happened. He gave me the news in what was probably the absolute best way he could. They had found Mom. I overheard Rock telling TJ (Larry Bodie) that it had taken him over an hour just to cover the 150 yards or so from the cabin to where we were simply because of the trees and damage. Though I hate that he had to be there at all, I will forever be grateful that God put Rock there to tell me the news. He is a tireless, dedicated Fireman, and a “man’s man.” His professionalism and compassion will never be forgotten.
Seconds later, Earl came stumbling, almost running out of the woods, and fell into me sobbing and telling me how sorry he was. It was Earl who had identified my mother, and Earl who had been there with the Search and Rescue Teams the whole way. He isn’t a Firefighter, he was running on adrenaline, and determined to help is friend.
After the shock had worn off, I looked up and saw the Coopers coming out of the woods, Katie still in her scrubs (she is a Physician) and Nelson (an Anesthesiologist) in whatever he had slipped on after work. As I looked beyond them, there was TJ (Larry Bodie) still running the chainsaw and directing the 50 or so others who had arrived since we got there. If you’ve ever spent 30 minutes running a chainsaw, imagine 4 solid hours. And he hadn’t slowed at all.
I was stunned at the sudden realization that Katie had been in there with Earl and Rock, and the 50 or more trained professionals, and she had hung right with them the whole way. Like Earl, she was running on adrenaline, and the undeniable drive to help a friend in need. And Nelson, knowing me and my mother and our senses of humor well, lightened the moment by pointing out that he had been in their too but nobody was fawning all over him like we were his adorable wife. We actually laughed, and told Nelson to shut up….this was Katie’s moment in the sun! Nelson is actually a very humble, kind man, and his comment was truly perfect at the moment, but the truth was he had been in there all along as well, and he came out only when everyone else had come out as well.
Then Wade came out. It was Wade who I had called first, and if you know Wade, you know why he was the first to come to my mind. It was Wade who was the first there. It was Wade who made the calls to Russell Lands, the Elmore and Tallapoosa County Sheriffs, Ourtown VFD, Windermere VFD, Alex City FD, SARELCO, Tallapoosa Search and Rescue, and all the others who had responded so quickly. Every one of them was a hero to me, but none more so than Wade. He had dropped everything to help a friend, he had already done so much. I immediately realized something I had suspected all along; Wade Jones is the finest man I’ve ever known, a great friend, and a true hero. He told me he would have done it for anyone (and I know that he would), but when I needed someone I could count on, and that person couldn’t let me down, Wade had shouldered the load and carried it all the way across the line, and then some.
They still had not found Alice, and the decision was made that it just wasn’t safe to keep searching in the dark. Daybreak was only a couple of hours away, so they would pull out and wait for light, then go back in to recover her when they could see. As hard as it was, I knew they were right and I gave my blessing to that decision. Elmore County Deputy Bill Wilson (another close friend) and his Canine Officers would find Alice early the next morning.
As I stood among 50-60 people who had responded, I was reminded of how lucky I am. I am a gun dealer by trade, so I am fortunate to count many Law Enforcement Officers among my friends. I had seen many of them that night, in uniforms and in action. Each one brought a tear to my eye. Sure, they will tell you they were just doing their respective jobs, but I knew I was standing among true heroes, and the world’s greatest collection of friends. As luck would have it, I had gotten to know TJ, Wade, and Rock through early morning coffee at Wade’s store in Ourtown, and through mutual friendships with others. It never crossed my mind (and I assume theirs either) that I would one day need them in this way, but there we all were.
And there was Katie and Nelson Cooper, Earl and Charla Baumgardner, and David Sturdivant. My God….David had been there the entire time too, in the woods, in his work clothes, tirelessly doing everything he or his company could do to find my Mother and Aunt.
As soon as they had found and removed Alice, they let me go down to the cabin. What was left wasn’t recognizable as a cabin at all. Mom’s car was under trees (which had made it all the more difficult to find the cabin because the car was what I had told them to look for. No one else lived down there year-round, other than the Coopers, so the car was the sign that they had found the right cabin). There wasn’t a wall standing, or even a piece of a wall. It was apparent that the very center of the storm had found the very center of the living room, with its beautiful view of the lake. The force of the storm was immediately obvious, and I found comfort in knowing that Mom and Alice had likely never known what had hit them. A woman would later return my Mother’s Driver’s License to me. She had found it in her yard. In Newnan, Georgia. 124 miles away as the crow flies from the cabin.
It was time to clean up, to sift through the rubble and save what was left, but I had to bury my Mother and Aunt first. The cleanup would have to wait. But it didn’t.
Later that day Earl and Charla went to work. They found a friend with an excavator, and organized 30-40 friends, employees, and even many of the same heroes who had helped us find the ladies and they went to work at the cabin. For 6-7 days, while we were planning and having the services for Mom and Alice, greeting friends and family, and grieving, they picked up everything they could find, put it in boxes, and brought it to my garage.
I found peace with Mom’s passing about 3 days after the storm. We were inseparably close, so there was nothing left unsaid, no regrets at all. We had spent time together 2-3 times a week in the years leading up to her passing, and we talked daily. I had spoken to her 13 minutes before the tornado stopped her watch, and the last words we said to each other were “I love you” but even that didn’t have to be said by either of us anymore. We both knew it as well as we knew our names. She had lived a full, fun, fulfilling life, and her heath was beginning to fade. Nothing serious, and nothing critical, but we could see the signs of things to come, and so could she.
Mom had an incredible sense of humor which she passed on to me. And she truly was “bigger than life.” Everyone who knew her well said that a tornado was the perfect way for Becky and Alice to leave this life, that they had to “go out with a bang!” That they were so positive and happy that they were probably standing in front of the windows that lined the front of the cabin watching as the storm approached. I can picture my Mom, standing there with a cigarette in one hand, a Bombay and tonic in the other, saying “Alice!…..isn’t that the most beautiful tornado you’ve ever seen?!?” She had a way of finding humor, and beauty in everything. I’m proud and so lucky that she passed that on to me and everyone who knew her.
And she obviously taught me how to choose friends well, because we have been surrounded and saved by the friends who rallied around us. In a tragedy such as this, and because of my closeness to Mom, it is the kind acts of friends that touch me the most. I know where Mom is now, and I wouldn’t bring her back if I could. It is what people do for those of us who live on that bring the tears, always tears of joy. It is humbling to witness and accept all of the love and charity of those you surround yourself with.