EVANS COLUMN: Hard to see pictures of Selma, damage here

Published 9:30 am Wednesday, January 18, 2023

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Having spent the last decade of my life in these three communities, I’d argue I’m among the most qualified people to write about the impact of tornadoes on Selma, Alabama, northern Chambers County and Troup County on Thursday.

Before moving to LaGrange five years ago, I spent four years of my life working for The Selma Times-Journal. I tell everyone that in Selma, you never knew who was going to walk over the historic Edmund Pettus Bridge, a centerpiece of the Voting Rights Movement. 

As a staff, we often wrote that the eyes of the world were on Selma, as they often were. Presidents, vice-presidents, members of Congress, celebrities — so many people would stop in, whether it was for the annual Bridge Crossing Jubilee, the filming of a movie or some other event.

And once again, the eyes of the world are on that community, as it deals with the destruction from a tornado that went right through the downtown area, destroying historic structures and wreaking havoc on a community that has already overcome so much. We lived in Old Towne, a historic part of Selma, during our time there. My wife checked in with our next-door neighbor, who said she rode out the storm in her closet. Based on photos and drone footage, the house we rented was just a couple streets over from the tornado’s path.  

Most places that are hit hard by a tornado would say it’s the worst day in their history. It’s not in Selma. That city has overcome much worse, and it’ll overcome again, though it’s going to need a lot of help. 

In comparison, Chambers County and LaGrange fared much better. It’s hard to write that knowing that some in our community lost their home or will be displaced for a while as repairs are made, but it’s the truth. 

Several neighborhoods received significant damage, including 106 homes in the city limits getting some type of damage. But thankfully no one was seriously hurt. No one died. Our downtown areas, our most densely populated areas, are still standing.

All of us have a story to tell, whether we were in the tornado polygon or not. We’ve heard a lot of them — whether they were from people who lost their home or just people who heard the sirens off and reacted. 

There’s no doubt that everyone here will remember Thursday, January 12 for years to come.

I’m that person that will watch severe weather from the time it enters the state of Alabama until the time it passes by Troup County, regardless of the time of day. Every time we have a day like Thursday, I watch for my sister in Northport, Alabama (just above Tuscaloosa), my hometown in Bibb County, Alabama and other newspapers within our larger company.  I also don’t want to be caught off-guard by a storm coming over the state line, and I want to keep our readers informed.  I was at lunch when I saw the storm was on a path to hit Selma, and memories started flooding back from my time there. When the storm finally passed Selma, pictures of the damage started rolling in, and it was tough to look at it.

But in the midst of reacting to that, we were suddenly right in the middle of the storm. We’d been preparing, just in case, for five or six hours, trying to be ready if a tornado happened to touch down here.

And then, in a split second, it was happening. 

All day long the storm had been “cycling” — a term meteorologists use that I am in no way qualified to explain in scientific terminology. Basically, in laymen’s terms it means it was weakening then strengthening. We’d sort of all taken a deep breath just minutes before, believing the storm had done its worst in Selma and Autauga County.

And while that ended up being the case, it appears it strengthened again and touched down as EF-2 tornado. Chambers County went under a tornado warning, and we heard on the police scanner that the tornado was on the ground.

Quickly, there was a warning from that same storm in northern Troup County. And minutes later, there was a simultaneous tornado warning to the south.

Again, it could have been worse.  

This community, as it always does, has come together to help those in need, whether it’s through food or donations or just volunteering time. More help is needed, not only here, but also in Selma. In Griffin. In plenty of other communities. The storm system caused a ton of damage across a two-state area. 

As I said above, all of us have a story to tell. All of our out-of-town family members want to know where we were when the tornado went through. People on the street want to know. People at church. People at Walmart.  My suggestion is, when you tell your story, ask the person you’re talking to how they get severe weather information. Ask them where they’d go in their house if a tornado warning hit their area. And think about that yourself. Assess how you handled Thursday. Were you caught off-guard?  This is a great opportunity to ensure next time you’re ready — that we’re all ready. 

We are in the midst of severe weather season, so you never know when the next severe storm might strike our area.