Survivors remember Christmas tornadoes one year later

Published 11:00 pm Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Rick Bernhard discusses the area that was damaged by a tornado during an interview at his home in Brantley Mobile Home Park in Troy, Ala., Monday, Dec. 23, 2013. Bernhard's mobile home was spared major damage in the Christmas tornado last year. (Photo/Thomas Graning)

Rick Bernhard discusses the area that was damaged by a tornado during an interview at his home in Brantley Mobile Home Park in Troy, Ala., Monday, Dec. 23, 2013. Bernhard’s mobile home was spared major damage in the Christmas tornado last year. (Photo/Thomas Graning)

One year after the 2012 Christmas tornadoes, those affected by the storm are still trying to make sense of what happened that Christmas night.

When you drive in to Brantley Mobile Home Park in Troy, it is hard to believe that a tornado destroyed a number of trailers just a year ago.

On the day after Christmas 2012, it looked like a bomb had gone off in the trailer park. Trees, wood and grass were strewn all over the ground. The air pressure from the tornado had literally torn some of the trailers apart.

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Now, there is just an empty space where three trailers used to be. The only signs that a tornado had ripped through the park are some twisted and snapped trees in the woods out behind the trailers.

Rick Bernhard, a driver for Wiley Sanders, lives in the trailer closest to where the tornado passed and is enthusiastic to share his story of that night.

Bernhard’s home is decorated like any typical man’s—full of football memorabilia, especially from the University of Alabama. Rick leans back in his recliner and begins to talk about that night.

“When the tornado actually hit, I wasn’t in the trailer,” Bernhard says. “I was supposed to be making a delivery for Wiley Sanders. We knew the weather was going to be bad that night, so we were watching the news. We saw a break in the storm about an hour and a half before the tornado hit, so I left the trailer and started toward Tampa.”

Rick pauses to collect his thoughts. “I get a call maybe two hours later from one of my neighbors. He tells me that a tornado just went through the park. He said he thought my place looked good. My cell phone was just loaded up with calls. Everyone was telling me they saw that Brantley Mobile Home Park had been hit on the news.”

Rick’s speech becomes more animated when he talks about arriving at the scene of the disaster. “I came back home after I got all the calls. When I first drove up on 231 and saw all the damage, my first thought was ‘Is my mobile home still there?’. It looked like a bomb hit the place. Everything was just tossed up. All the first responders were out and moving through the debris.”

Bernhard seems to take a pride in his trailer having survived the tornado. “My neighbors on my left got the brunt of the tornado. The tornado actually picked up the far end of the trailer, but the trailer stayed anchored down. I mainly got the debris field. The wind moved my boat, but didn’t take it. As long as the boat was fine, I was okay. The tornado ripped off some of the skirting. In total, there was about $2,600 in damage.”

Bernhard heads outside and points to the treeline about 30 yards from the trailer. “The tornado came right through there. It can’t be more than 30 or 40 yards. We were out cutting firewood in the woods a few months ago, and we found a piece of my skirting about 200 yards from here. I couldn’t believe it.”

Rick shakes his head and looks out toward the snapped trees. “I have been living here for 23 years. You wouldn’t think a tornado would hit in December. I don’t remember weather being so crazy last year. Luckily, nobody was killed. If the tornado had been 30 yards closer I would probably be living in a new trailer.”

From the outside, Barbara Dunn’s trailer seems to be in perfect condition. Last year, that wasn’t the case

Barbara is a humble woman. Her trailer is full of books on religion and history. She moves some books off a chair, sits down and speaks.

She begins to recount her tale. “I was in the hallway when the tornado hit. The top of a tree came through my two bedrooms. I’ll never forget that moment, but I can’t describe what it was like. There was such a pressure in my ears. It was almost like a jet engine coming in. I was absolutely terrified.”

The tornado was a terrifying experience for Dunn. “I could hear the sound of limbs popping, glass breaking and the house shaking,” Dunn says. “When the tree came in, I knew the trailer had been hit, but I couldn’t tell what direction the tornado was coming from. I actually thought it was coming in the opposite direction. I could hear the tin of the roof scraping. It’s something I never want to go through again.”

Normally, Dunn would not have ridden the storm out in her hallway, but there was something about this particular night that made her cautious. “I was watching television, and I heard the sirens,” Dunn says. “When it crossed the road at Highway 29, all the lights in the house went out. They say to get to the inside wall during tornadoes. I was crouched in the hallway when the tornado hit. I just prayed the entire time. I normally stay in bed during storms, but I didn’t that night. Had I been in bed, the tree would have fallen on top of me.”

After the storm had hit, Dunn was not even concerned with the damage her trailer had sustained. “My first concern was to get to my sister who lives in a trailer up the hill,” Dunn says. “It was seconds before people were out checking on one another. All my neighbors seemed to be okay. All I could think of was how fortunate I was to be alive. We have a good neighborhood here.”

The interior of Barbara’s home shows no signs of damage, but following the storm, her trailer was in critical condition. “When I finally saw the damage, I could not believe it,” Dunn says. “There was a hole in the roof of the trailer, and all but one window was broken. I had to close off the two bedrooms. It wasn’t the damage to the trailer that most upset me, though. My grandfather’s clock was broken during the storm. I remember him winding the clock every night before bed. Even after the trailer was hit, I came back and stayed the night.”

Barbara becomes emotional when she talks about all those who helped her after the storm. “God had spared me. I belong to a wonderful church group, and they all came out and helped me tarp the roof of the trailer. I didn’t have home insurance, but the disaster relief fund at my church helped me repair my home. It was months before we had the trailer put fully back together again. Everything had to be gutted.”

It has been a year, but severe weather still makes Barbara feel uneasy. “I don’t like bad weather anyway. It always made me nervous. But, I never felt scared when I was in my trailer. Now, that feeling of safety is gone. I have a cat that was with me when the tornado hit. Whenever a plane flies in to the airport, the sound makes the cat skittish. It’s something that I hope never happens again.”

Sgt. Allan Pennington responded to the tornado that hit Goshen. He sits back in a recliner while he speaks. His tone is easy-going; his words drawl out of his mouth. “When they told us the tornado hit a trailer park, I was imagining a large amount of damage and injuries. I was hoping there would be no injuries, but I didn’t think that would be possible. When we got out there, everyone had been accounted for, and that was a big relief for us.”

The crew had difficulty getting out to the areas where they were needed. “It was so dark that night that you could barely see anything,” Pennington says. “They told us there was some damage further up the road, but there were so many downed trees that we couldn’t get there straight away. We had to stop and clear the roadways so families and other rescue workers could get in and out.”

Willie McGuire, a senior fire fighter, was on the crew with Pennington in Goshen. He is a bit more animated in speech than Pennington. His eyes widen when he talks about that night. “We were hoping there would be no fatalities. We knew we had to get out there quick and do the best we can. The farther we got out, the more damage we saw. I knew there was going to be at least one fatality. I just prayed harder and harder as we drove out there. It was such a blessing that there were no fatalities. We were praying the whole way.”

McGuire credits the city for providing firefighters with the proper training. “Troy does a good job keeping us properly trained and equipped. When disasters like the tornadoes happen, they get us more prepared mentally and physically. If it happens again, we just have to hope against hope that we won’t have any fatalities again.”