10 Years of Recovery: Holt Church, School Stood as Pillars for Those in Need
This story is airing as part of WVUA 23’s “Faces of the Storm: 10 Years Later.” Watch it on WVUA 23 at 7 and 9 p.m. April 27, and at 8 p.m. May 1. The show will be available on our YouTube channel beginning April 28.
By WVUA 23 News Reporter Julia Smith
A decade later, it’s still a fresh wound in the mind of West Alabamians. For many who lived in and near Crescent Mobile Home Park in Holt, the EF4 tornado that swept through on April 27, 2011, left a gaping hole that even time cannot fill.
Less than 50 yards from the mobile home park stands Soma Church, which has been there for the community since 2006.
Soma Pastor Shaun Faulkner said he watched from his home as the tornado bore down on the church and everything around it.
“I was watching it as it came across our campus here at the church before we decided we needed to get in the house and get in our safe place,” Faulkner said. “There was a general knowledge that it hit the church because, like I said, I’d seen it.”
But God’s house knew it would be needed, so the church was left virtually untouched by the tornado.
“There were three panes of glass broken here,” Faulkner said. “Then in the front of the building there were two windows broken.”
Just minutes after all the destruction, Good Samaritans used one of those broken windows to unlock the door and drag or carry those who were injured into the sanctuary. They used doors from damaged homes as makeshift gurneys.
Faulkner said residents brought the injured in for triage before they were carried up to Crescent Ridge Road via all-terrain vehicles because the ambulances could not get through blocked roads to the church.
But that long, tragic night was only the beginning of a long journey for the close-knit community and Soma Church. The church wound up as a staging site for food and supplies distribution.
“There were so many people,” Faulkner said. “Hundreds of people from all over the nation who came through and said ‘what can we do?’ So we just had the privilege of saying ‘here’s what you can do, here’s how you can help,’ just coordinating that.”
While Soma Church wound up safe from the storm, another center for the community was not spared. Holt Elementary School suffered a direct hit.
Principal Debbie Crawford said the phone call she got that evening is still crystal clear in her mind.
“Our custodian, Jimmy Maddox, called me and he said, ‘Ms. Crawford, the school has been hit,’ ” she said. “He was crying, and I said I’ll be right there.”
Crawford said she and the school’s nurse immediately headed toward the school. Because of all the damage, they traveled through a nearby neighborhood instead of taking their usual route. On the way, everything looked normal. But when they got there they realized the extent of the damage.
“When I came out on Crescent Ridge Road I was amazed,” Crawford said. “It still brings tears to my eyes to think about what I saw.”
After assessing the situation, Crawford said she determined the school’s gym was left unharmed. That made the next steps a whole lot easier.
“We set up areas to help in the community,” Crawford said. “We had a medical area, we had water. Before it was all over we even had an area for clothes.”
Though she was worried about the physical school building, Crawford said her biggest concern was the most important facets of the school: its students.
“I will never forget when that first carload of children pulled in,” she said. “It was very emotional. One of my teachers looked at me and she shook her finger and said ‘you cannot cry.’ But of course I did.”
Just days after the tornado, as Crawford and the rest of the community toiled at getting the school cleaned enough for repairs to begin, they were visited by some important guests.
“We did have a visit from President (Barack) Obama,” Crawford said. “He toured the gym and there were families in there, as well as some teachers. He and Mrs. Obama, their caring and concern was amazing.”
Though it was a long journey with far too much loss, Soma Church and Holt Elementary are still proud cornerstones of the Holt community.
“To me, the biggest blessing was the unification of the residents, the churches, the schools that we shared then and continue now,” Faulkner said.