A community embraces its own in the aftermath of a devastating tornado
IT WAS OVER IN A MATTER OF MINUTES. That terrifying Sunday afternoon on March 3, 2019, when an EF4 tornado barreled through the rural areas of Beauregard and Smiths Station in Lee County, leaving a path of destruction and changing a community forever.
It was only a few minutes more until help arrived. Multitudes of people. From everywhere, coming to do whatever they could.
Lee County Coroner Bill Harris ’76 left his home initially to assess the damage, not realizing the magnitude of the situation. As he drove out of Opelika on Highway 51, he heard the first radio call confirming three deaths.
“Before I had even gone another mile, two more were confirmed,” Harris said. “I had to stop at Beauregard Elementary School to let the second tornado pass, and before I left there, the count was up to seven.”
Lee County Sheriff Jay Jones ’76 was at home watching television as meteorologists carefully followed the line of storms. The tone of the broadcaster’s voices intensified; Jones realized they were potentially facing a serious weather event.
He quickly put on his uniform, grabbed a bow saw, a rope, a chain and an axe and headed out. The closer he got to the Beauregard area, the more evident it became that Lee County had been hit hard. Catastrophically hard.
Immediately, the sheriff encountered a man who was looking for his dog, his head bleeding from a deep gash. Jones got his medical kit and bandaged the man’s wound until medical personnel could get him to the hospital for treatment. The man didn’t care about his injury — he just wanted to find his dog and see if there were others he could help.
Trees, power lines, rooftops, metal, wood, clothing, crumpled cars and every other kind of debris littered the roadways as far as the eye could see. Whole houses sat in the streets, completely blown off of their foundations. The second stories of homes were cleanly sliced away, exposing the ground floor and soaking couches, televisions and dining room tables.
Will Herring ’06 and his friend Patrick Norrell drove to the area to check on Herring’s property, but as they made their way down Highway 51 they realized how devastating the damage was and stopped to assist.
“Trailers have been demolished. Homes have been demolished,” he posted via a Facebook Live video. “We need help.”
“Patrick and I saw people who were so disoriented. We saw victims who had not survived and one who was near death. We prayed over her as she slipped away,” Herring said.
Regardless of their own situations, survivors did not worry about themselves, but instead walked from property to property checking on their neighbors and taking care of each other.
Neighbors helping neighbors. Strangers helping strangers. People helping people. That was how it went from that day forward.
“The response from this community has been nothing short of remarkable,” Jones said. “Literally, within minutes, it went from silence to the sounds of chainsaws, excavators and other equipment moving in to begin clearing what they could so emergency vehicles and utility trucks could help the injured and secure the areas that were destroyed. Hundreds of volunteers showed up, some lifting debris with their bare hands, some with tools, some walking from house to house looking for survivors, but all of them willing to do anything and everything to help, in any way they could. Multiple first responders and emergency agencies just showed up to help; they didn’t call, they just came.”
Search teams with canines began looking for those who did not survive. The death toll rose. By the time the sun set on that first day, 23 people were confirmed dead. First responders feared the number would continue to rise. But within 36 hours of the storm, everyone who had been reported missing was accounted for, and even though some were injured, they were all alive.
Harris had a fully operational mobile morgue set up in the parking lot of Sanford Middle School, a unit housed in Lee County as part of the state’s comprehensive safety plan. Beauregard School, Sanford Middle School and Providence Baptist Church all opened their doors and staffed their facilities to meet the needs of first responders, medical personnel, families, volunteers, clergy, dignitaries, non-profit organizations and media.
All the training first responders and other emergency entities had participated in over the years were key not only in the rapid response, but the organization of it.
“It was like it was orchestrated, as if we had practiced this exact scenario,” Jones said. “All those involved knew what to do almost instinctively and it made the search and rescue — and every other aspect of the recovery — go about as smoothly as it possibly could have. Donations began pouring in from area residents. Churches rented out entire hotels for families who were displaced and individuals invited complete strangers into their homes. At East Alabama Medical Center, clergy arrived to comfort the injured and their loved ones.
“The Lee County Schools Board of Education did not hesitate to open any and all facilities we needed, and I just cannot say enough about everything Providence Baptist Church did,” Jones said. Any need we had, they provided — from shelter, food, clothing, supplies and other immediate needs, to areas where families of victims could meet privately with the coroner, clergy, counselors and others.”
Three days after the storm, many donation sites were past capacity, and additional warehouses were opened to store supplies. Truckloads of goods were rolling in, sent from groups, churches and organization from all across the country.
In those first few days, Auburn University students, athletes, faculty and staff provided manpower, supplies and campus drop-off sites for donations. Auburn President Steven Leath gave every Auburn employee eight hours of paid leave to help in the recovery efforts, and provided Tiger Transit shuttles to volunteer centers in Beauregard and Smiths Station.
Athletes from the swimming, diving, football, baseball, softball, volleyball and track and field teams worked with units from Samaritan’s Purse in Beauregard and Smiths Station to clear debris and salvage the victims’ personal belongings. Forty football players delivered supplies to the area.
“Auburn athletics has aligned with the university’s efforts in delivering impactful and long lasting relief to our Lee County neighbors and community members,” Associate Athletic Director Brant Ust said.
The Auburn University Student Veteran’s Association (AUSVA) and staff from the on-campus Veteran’s Resource Center volunteered with the Lee County Emergency Management Agency the week following the storm. Then, during spring break, student veterans partnered with Team Rubicon, an organization that unites the skills and experiences of military veterans with first responders to rapidly deploy emergency-response teams.
“When we heard Lee County had taken a direct hit, Puck Esposito [director of the Veterans Resource Center] and I started making phone calls to find a place we could help,” said Kyle Venable ’19, president of the AUSVA. “County Commissioner Johnny Lawrence ’90 sent us to Greater Peace Baptist Church in Opelika, where we assisted Cajun Navy and other organizations unloading and setting up the distribution of supplies. During spring break, we worked with Team Rubicon tackling whatever jobs were needed, from meeting with individual families to assist them, to moving trees and debris from where houses once stood.”
Venable said it was important to the student veterans to be able to give back.
“Lee County and Auburn have become our homes,” he said. “Its people are our friends and neighbors. Just because we are out of the military, our service hasn’t stopped. I would hope that if my home was damaged or destroyed the way these were, that people would do just the same for me. Hopefully, the positive energy and efforts will spread throughout the community making it a better place to live and making the recovery shorter.”
As days turned into weeks, every attempt to return to normalcy was celebrated. Men’s basketball players and coaches, the cheerleaders and Aubie greeted children as they returned to Beauregard and Loachapoka elementary schools two weeks after the storm. Football, swimming and diving athletes participated in a pep rally to welcome a severely injured student on her first day back at Sanford Middle School. Coaches and staff from men’s basketball served lunch to teachers and staff at Beauregard Elementary.
“It is important to understand that this is a commitment for the long term, starting with the collection and distribution of needed items and to be sustained throughout the recovery and rebuilding efforts,” Ust said. “Many of our student-athletes, coaches and staff have already participated in service and support activities and we will continue to work with university leadership and Lee County EMA in further determining how athletics can be there for a community that has been so vital to the university.”
As the community rallied to help, the local and national media poured into Beauregard, many broadcasting live from the scene. A command center was established, and the Lee County Emergency Management Agency, along with police, fire, the sheriff’s office and state and federal representatives, worked together to make sure every need was met and accurate information was released through official press conferences.
Becky Benton ’92 and the two other staff members at United Way of Lee County, handled 585 tornado-related calls that came into the 2-1-1 emergency response line in the first two weeks following the storm.
What the world saw on those nightly newscasts was a community that comes together in the face of tragedy. And while some nationally may move on to other news, Auburn and the local community will not.
“This isn’t a two- to three-week volunteer opportunity,” Jones said. “It will takes months, even years, for some of these families to rebuild what they have lost. I know our community will not let these neighbors fall off the radar. We will be with them as long as they need us.” To help the victims of the tornado, visit eamc.org/mend, call 334-528-MEND or email email@example.com.