Scope of Rural Tornado Destruction Under-Reported

Last Updated: May 31, 2011

We Are Tushka, Smithville, Maben, Hackleburg, Phil Campbell, Rainsville

Special Report by Robin Lambert, RPM Editor

This article appeared in the May 2011 Rural Policy Matters.

Editor's note: Links are free and current at time of posting, but may require registration or expire over time.

Dozens of school systems across much of the South cancelled classes for the day; others sent students home early. The National Weather Service had made it clear that conditions were extremely dangerous. Radios replaced iPods; shelters and closets and interior bathrooms were readied with blankets and mattresses, flashlights and police scanners. Southerners don’t mess around with violent spring weather, and this year had already proven especially deadly.

Throughout the day friends and families texted each other, posted updates and warnings on Facebook, made frantic calls urging each other to get in a safe place. Then, mid-afternoon, in a slow northeastwardly march, the texts and posts disappeared and calls went silent as the power grid, phone system, and cell towers were demolished, along with tens of thousands of homes and businesses and eight schools, five of them in rural communities.

By the time the storms were over, at least 318 people had died in tornados, 74% of them in rural communities and small rural towns in a broad swath stretching from Mississippi, across Alabama, and into Georgia, Tennessee, and Virginia.

It was April 27th.

Many people now know it as the day a massive tornado hit Tuscaloosa, home to the University of Alabama.

The same storm system had killed six people on April 24th and 25th in Arkansas, five of them in rural communities.

Prior to the May tornadoes that struck Joplin and Oklahoma City, the spring of 2011 had already become one of the most destructive and deadly on record. In fact, forty-one people, two-thirds of the annual average for tornado deaths in the U.S., had died in tornadoes before the April 27th supercell outbreak. Those tornadoes struck Louisiana, Tennessee, Georgia, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Alabama, Mississippi, North Carolina, and Virginia. Thirty-one of the victims died in rural counties.

The tornado outbreak of April 14th–16th killed 38 people, including 12 in rural Bertie County, North Carolina. It also destroyed the rural K–12 school in Tushka, Oklahoma. That strike, accounting for the sixth rural school demolished by weather, occured in the evening and no students were killed.

Getting the Rural Story

Misery and loss are no respecters of person. Or of place. And this year’s tornado season has poured out more misery than anyone, or any community, should have to bear.

No community suffered more total deaths than Joplin, where, as of May 31, 139 people were confirmed dead and another 100 people are still missing. One of the city’s hospitals took a direct hit; 30% of the city’s buildings are destroyed, including three schools; and, the 2011 class of Joplin High School walked out of their graduation ceremonies into a nightmare of unimaginable proportions.

In Tuscaloosa, the massive wedge tornado slashed through the middle of the city and across its busiest intersection. The tornado narrowly missed the University of Alabama and DCH Hospital, but it slammed hundreds of businesses, major industrial operations, civic buildings, and more than 5,000 houses. The most devastating hits were to the Cedar Crest and Forest Lake neighborhoods, mixed income and middle-class neighborhoods where many Alabama students lived, and to the low-income neighborhoods of Alberta City, Holt and Rosedale Courts, where three elementary schools, all with free and reduced lunch rates over 75%, were demolished. As elsewhere, schools were not in session and no students died at schools.

The deadly Tuscaloosa tornado continued into Jefferson County (Birmingham), Alabama, where it destroyed much of Pleasant Grove, Pratt City, McDonald Chapel, and Concord, communities only recently recovered from a deadly 1998 tornado.

The rural tragedies have proven harder to catalog and report. In part, that’s because they are so spread out and much more removed from the media spotlight. Covered primarily in local newspapers, websites, Facebook pages, and YouTube videos, rural tornado news has been directed mostly to a local audience.

To our knowledge no national media outlet has attempted to catalog the scope of the tornado disaster as it impacts rural communities. The relative lack of coverage creates the impression that damage in rural communities is more minor and contained than it is. It also suggests a lack of understanding and interest in rural issues on the part of national media, and that makes it more difficult for rural communities to attract the attention and assistance they need.

Even before the Joplin tornado when urban deaths accounted for less than 25% of 2011 violent weather deaths, several reports, like this one in The Washington Post, attributed the high tornado death to the tornadoes’ strikes on urban areas. These attributions are, at best, misleading.

The Rural Impact of this Spring’s Violent Weather

Altogether deadly tornadoes have struck more than 70 rural communities in 2011, resulting in at least 268 deaths. But even this number is low as it does not include people who died in rural parts of urban counties, nor the four college students from rural communities who died in Tuscaloosa on April 27th.

One of the many tragic aspects of natural disasters is that they tend to hit a contiguous area, whole neighborhoods in urban places, entire communities in rural places. And while smaller tornadoes are inexplicable in the ways they skip up and down, wiping out one building and leaving the next unscathed, the multi-vortex and wedge long-track tornadoes of April 25–27 and May 22–24 are nearly incomprehensible not only for their fury, but for their scale, staying on the ground for dozens of miles and cutting paths of absolute destruction as much as a mile wide in some places.

Such contiguous destruction makes it especially difficult for neighborhoods and communities to recover. In small communities residents share the loss of many common friends and family members, jobs, and homes. Almost everyone is struggling to find the physical resources for the most basic of every day tasks.

The loss of important community institutions that bind people together compound the misery. That’s the case for the six rural communities whose schools were destroyed by the spring tornadoes: Tushka, Oklahoma (Tushka, K–12, Atoka County) on April 14th; and, Smithville High School, 7–12, Oktibbeha and Webster Counties) Phil Campbell, Alabama (Phil Campbell High, 7–12, with less severe damage to the elementary school, Franklin County); Hackleburg, Alabama (Hackleburg, K–12, Marion County); and Rainsville, Alabama (Plainview School, K–12, DeKalb County), all on April 27th.

In news reports, residents of all these communities have noted the loss of their schools as a particularly heart-rending blow to their communities’ identities.

In addition to catastrophic school losses, many more schools in rural communities and small town schools have been significantly damaged by tornadoes this spring, including schools in Rayne, Louisiana (Acadia Parish) on March 5th; and Hanceville, Alabama (Cullman County); Jasper, Alabama (Walker County); Pell City, Moody, Odenville, and Ragland, Alabama (all in St. Clair, County); Ringgold, Georgia (Catoosa County); Trenton, Georgia (Dade County); and Flintstone, Georgia (Walker County) on April 27th.

Many more schools sustained minor damage, and dozens in Alabama and Tennessee were closed for days as a result of damage to the state’s electrical grid and/or widespread community destruction that prevented students from attending.

In terms of per capita deaths, the community most hard-hit by this spring’s tornadoes is Phil Campbell, Alabama, a community of about 1,000 that lost 23 people on April 27th. Phil Campbell also lost its grocery store, a gas station, a medical clinic, and several churches as well as the high school. Three more people died in the nearby community of East Franklin, which also suffered widespread property losses.

Hackleburg, Alabama seems likely to be the community with the highest percentage of property losses. The town of 1,500 lost at least 75% of its buildings, including its police and fire stations, a restaurant, its only grocery and dime stores, churches, most homes, and a Wrangler denim plant as well as the school. Eighteen people died in the community. Hackleburg is one of the more isolated communities that took a direct strike, and it was several days before mainstream media learned of its devastation.

Smithville, Mississippi suffered losses on a scale similar to Hackleburg, losing the police and fire station, restaurants, stores, churches, and homes as well as the school. Fifteen people died in the community of about 900 people.

More than 20 people died in the Sand Mountain, Alabama community of Rainsville, population about 4,400. Plainview School is considered a total loss and other property losses were extensive throughout the community and in the nearby communities of Fyffe, Henagar, Sylvania, and Ider.

Tushka, Oklahoma also suffered severe widespread property losses and has been declared a disaster area.

Why So Much Destruction?

Tornadoes are rated on the Enhanced Fujita (EF) scale according to the types of damage they do and to the speed of winds inside the tornado. EF-1 tornadoes are often deadly despite being the weakest. EF-5 tornadoes are the strongest, with winds in excess of 216 mph. This spring three EF-5 tornadoes have struck the United States, one in Joplin.

The other two EF-5 tornadoes began in Mississippi on April 27th. It was the first time ever that two such tornadoes hit the same state on the same day. One of those tornadoes hit rural Kemper County where it killed three people. An hour later, the second EF-5 tornado opened up over Smithville. That tornado stayed on the ground for miles, crossing into Alabama in Marion County (which was struck almost simultaneously by a separate E-3 tornado that killed seven people in the rural community of Shottsville) and continuing into Franklin, Lawrence, Limestone, and Madison Counties in Alabama. Altogether this EF-5 tornado killed 86 people. It marked the sixth time Alabama has been struck with a tornado of the severest magnitude, tying Alabama with Texas for the most EF-5 strikes in U.S. history.

Elsewhere in Alabama, 12 EF-4 long-track tornadoes, including multi-vortex and wedge tornadoes, slammed much of central and north Alabama. Among these 12 tornadoes were the Tuscaloosa/Jefferson tornado; two EF-4s in Jackson County, one of which crossed into DeKalb County, Alabama and then into Dade County, Georgia; a separate EF-4 in DeKalb County; and EF-4 tornadoes that tracked through Fayette/Walker and St. Clair/Calhoun counties in north Alabama and Elmore/Tallapoosa counties in south central Alabama. In addition, EF-4 tornadoes hit Bledsoe and Bradley Counties, Tennessee; Catoosa County Georgia, tracking into Hamilton County, Tennessee; and, Smith/Jasper/Clarke Counties in Mississippi. A separate EF-3 tornado also hit Bradley County, Tennessee.

In addition, seven more EF-3 and seven EF-2 tornadoes claimed lives in other parts of Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, and Virginia. (All data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, May 28, 2011.)

On average, southern states have slightly fewer tornadoes than states in the better-known Midwestern and plains region of tornado alley. But southerners die in tornadoes at higher rates than their mid-continent counterparts. That is due to several factors. Southern states are more densely populated. They are also poorer so more residents live in mobile homes, notoriously vulnerable to wind. And, the high water table across much of the South makes basements and storm shelters impractical in many places, eliminating the possibility of an underground refuge, generally the safest place to be in a strong tornado.

While these factors make surviving a weak or medium tornado less likely, even very well-built permanent structures offer little protection when an EF-4 or EF-5 makes a direct strike.

In the types of tornadic activity of spring 2011, there was, simply put, nowhere safe for most people to go.

That reality is witnessed by the hundreds of website photos and YouTube videos posted by people from tornado-stricken places. But even these wrenching images, everyone with firsthand knowledge seems to agree, merely hint at the devastation.

Given the number, geographic range, and strength of this year’s storms, the question isn’t why so many died, but how so many survived.

For many people on the ground in hard-hit communities, survival itself is seen as a miracle — a product of improved warning systems, preparation and vigilance of local residents, daytime rather than nighttime strikes, the wise decisions of school administrators to close schools rather than keep students together in one location, heroic selfless efforts of neighbors and strangers to shelter and rescue one another, and of a kind of grace, a belief in which sustains many people through the incomprehensible.

What’s Next?

The re-building of the hardest-hit communities will be measured not in weeks or months, but in years. It will require sustained investment and attention, not just from local residents, but from outside the community, from volunteers and civic organizations and from the shared public enterprise we call state and federal government.

In the short term, residents are pulling together the bits and pieces remaining of their possessions, trying to file insurance when they have it, register for FEMA assistance, bury their dead, graduate their young, figure out how to survive a tornado-destroyed job, find some kind of shelter for the duration, and comfort and encourage each other.

In almost all communities what is most needed immediately is financial assistance, the kind of assistance that can help people get food, medicine, building materials, a temporary place to stay while they deal with the immediate aftermath of absolute disaster. Most communities are asking individuals interested in helping to provide cash assistance and not to send supplies, clothing, toys, or other goods. Many communities lack the space to house such materials and don’t have the people to sort and distribute them effectively.

Communities trying to rebuild their schools along with most of the rest of their infrastructure face special challenges, in no small part because their local tax bases, which generate local revenue to support capital outlay, have been decimated.

In recognition of this reality, the Alabama legislature passed a measure pledging to work with the districts to help fill in the gaps in rebuilding costs not covered by district insurance or FEMA assistance. The extent of financial support remains to be seen.

How You Can Help Rural Communities

Individuals interested in providing financial assistance or volunteer labor in response to the disasters have several options, including whether to direct assistance to specific communities.

General Support to Aid Disaster Recovery

Support Targeted to States or Local Rural Communities

People who would like to provide assistance specifically directed to one or more rural communities can find information for the best ways to help in most of the affected counties here. This list includes contact information for local agencies and volunteer groups that are addressing needs directly at the community level.

The 2011 tornado disasters are, to a large extent, rural disasters.

Please remember rural communities, their residents, and their institutions as you consider how you can help.

Local Organizations Providing Disaster Relief

Note: This list is still incomplete and will be continually updated. Check back for more details and additional opportunities to help.


State efforts

The state of Alabama's volunteer website enables you to make financial contributions to the statewide recovery effort. You can also sign up as an individual or to bring a group to work in the recovery effort. Forty-two of Alabama’s 67 counties have been approved for disaster assistance due to tornadoes on April 27 and April 15.

Because damage in Alabama is so extensive and widespread, there are many organizations working in a variety of ways to provide assistance. Some of the websites below aggragate listings for many different groups. RPM is passing along this information and not endorsing or vouching for any single group.

Georgia: Dade, Catoosa, and Walker Counties

  • Northwest Georgia Chapter of the Red Cross: (423) 615-9324
  • Catoosa Organization Acting in Disaster
    P.O. Box 53
    Ringgold, GA 30736


State efforts:

The state of Mississippi's website includes information about how to make donations and sign up as an individual or a group to volunteer in the recovery effort.

Smithville (Monroe County)


  • Bradley County Resource Staging Center; please call 423-559-5531 for information about what is most needed.

Read more:









North Carolina



Robin Lambert is Policy Information Manager for the Rural Trust and editor of Rural Policy Matters. She is a graduate of the University of Alabama and worked for nearly twenty years at the University’s Program for Rural Services and Research, where she served as Assistant Director and Coordinator of the Rural Education Project and worked with other staff and hundreds of rural Alabamians to establish the PACERS scholarship program for rural teachers and the PACERS Cooperative of Small Schools.

Read more from the May 2011 Rural Policy Matters.

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