January 23, 2012 is a day that is remembered in the local community. It was a day that changed the city of Clay and the lives of its residents forever.
“We were awakened around 3:45 a.m. by the tornado sirens,” said Sheila Sutton, who nearly lost her family’s entire home on Pannell Road during the storm. “My husband, son and I made it to our basement just as the power went out, followed immediately by the ceiling tiles dancing above our heads, the solid concrete floor under our feet shaking to the sound of wood twisting, breaking glass, and a deep rumbling roar. It lasted maybe 15 seconds.”
But those 15 seconds seemed like a lifetime, she said, as they stood among the rubble of what was a home that she and her husband had lived in, raised four children in, and made lifelong memories in.
“Broken glass, keepsakes, photos, furniture – everything in piles covered in pine straw, insulation, dirt,” Sutton said. “It was raining in the house through the ceiling.”
Like hundreds of other area residents, the Sutton family was in shock.
“You just cannot imagine it until you’ve lived it,” she said. “It is so surreal. You wonder why there is a fence post stuck in the floor of your bedroom. You just can’t really think what to do first.”
Looking for a way out of the house, the Suttons quickly realized they were almost trapped inside, due to downed trees and structural damage.
“We could not open the front or back doors,” Sutton said. “One was blocked by a tree, the other by the roof. We got the basement door open, but it was blocked by the biggest tree in our yard, which had crushed our car. My husband crawled out under that tree to see if anyone needed help.”
Within minutes after the storm had passed, neighbors and community members were coming to the aid of one another, forming search and rescue parties. This event not only brought out the worst in Mother Nature, but possibly the best in the community, as families and neighbors put aside any differences and focused on helping one another.
“You’re so caught between rejoicing that you’re alive, fearing who isn’t and grieving what you’ve lost,” Sutton said. “It’s the weirdest ‘place’ I think I’ve ever been.”
Now, nearly nine months after that day, the Sutton family members are finally able to sleep in their own beds, under a new roof, back in their home. Cleanup and reconstruction following a natural disaster can take months, even years to complete. Most of the time, the communities are never quite the same.
What amazed Sutton about the days and months following the tornado, was how the community rallied together to support one another.
“Hundreds came to help out,” she said. “Some I knew, many I didn’t, but they will never know the depth of appreciation that my family felt.”
Municipal efforts around the state haven’t stopped since the April 2011 and January 2012 tornadoes.
“I really do think that Clay and Trussville have done an amazing job with cleanup and providing resources,” Sutton said. “Churches have been amazing, and Clay-Chalkville coaches and football players were among the first to show up at our house to start clearing trees, etc. We’ve been so blessed by help from old friends and new.”
Sutton said this was not her first tornado experience.
“My parents lost their home in a tornado when I was a pre-schooler,” she said. During that tornado, when she was a child, she remembers something special. “My mama said that the only thing in the house that was still where she left it was my grandmother’s churn. It was sitting on the foundation of the kitchen exactly where my mama had left it.”
That same churn was given to Sutton when she and her husband, Rick, were married 36 years ago.
“It was on my front porch with a plant sitting on it the morning of the tornado,” she said. “It was the only thing left on my front porch following the tornado, exactly where it had been.”
Sutton said she has learned so much over these past seven months.
“ I have also quoted this verse a million times: ‘The Lord gives and the Lord takes away, blessed be the name of the Lord’,” she said.
This verse is written on the frame of their dining room door, underneath the sheetrock
. As for the churn, it’s on the front porch just as it should be.