By Madoline Markham
Photos by Keith McCoy & Contributed
Sandy Evers had never seen tornado damage first hand—not until a ferocious column of rotating wind barreled through the streets around her home and the school where she works on March 25. And she certainly hadn’t driven past friends’ and students’ houses ripped to shreds within a mile or two of her own home.
“It was truly a gut check and an eye opener,” she notes. “I saw how fragile life is.”
For Kyle Dudley, who was serving as an assistant principal at Oak Mountain High School alongside Evers at the time, the tornado’s impact extra hit home when he learned his daughter’s in-home day care across from Heardmont Park had suffered damage from the EF3 tornado. His daughter wasn’t there when the tornado came through, but it was still weighty for everyone with ties to that house.
“Those 12 or so families (that send their kids to that daycare) rallied together for Miss Lee, and she tried to get her home open as soon as possible,” Dudley says. “I think there are stories like that across the community where people rallied together to care for their neighbors.” And as Evers and Dudley, who is now serving as the principal of Shelby County High School, note, their stories are just two of many of neighbors helping neighbors remove debris and begin to rebuild what was lost. As person after person would recount, they were emerging #oakmountainstrong.
Evers and Dudley’s stories would, though, uniquely lead them to spearhead tornado relief and donation spot in the OMHS lunchroom. In less than 24 hours after the storm hit, the room had become a mini Costco of supplies for neighbors and students’ families along Highway 119 and in the especially hard hit Eagle Point, where some homes were leveled to the ground.
Home Depot and Lowe’s brought in in truckloads of trash bags, work gloves, tarps and other supplies. Regions Bank supplied hundreds of cases of bottled water and more. Restaurants owners and workers were driving through subdivisions passing out meals. “That was an inspiring thing to see, after these businesses were hit so hard by COVID,” Evers notes.
Among the many items on the Home Depot truck were waterproof bins that homeowners had found they needed to store items they salvaged from their homes. “We didn’t know they needed it, but Home Depot knew they needed it,” Dudley says. And donations kept coming in too. Cool Box Storage on Caldwell Mill Road gave tornado victims free storage space, Cahaba Dermatology donated $3,000 in gift cards and a group of Oak Mountain alumni donated money as well.
And then what happened? First of all, students were coming back to school, so the lunchroom couldn’t stay full of supplies. Instead, the administrators asked community members to pick up supplies and take them to their friends and neighbors who needed them. That applied to the neighborhoods around the school but also had a much bigger reach as supplies went out to other hard hit areas around the state like Calera, Columbiana and Ohatchee.
The OMHS administrators also shifted to ask for monetary and gift card donations to be given to the school’s front office to meet needs that would come about in the days and weeks to come for people displaced from their homes. The school put together a spreadsheet of people in homes that had been hit, and started matching donations with needs for funding hotel stays or food or whatever might be needed.
Time and time again the school administrators say they were overwhelmed by generosity from the community. “We thought we would only be able to help the hardest hit families, but people were so generous that every time we gave a set of gift cards away more would come in,” Dudley says. “Our nets were continually full in that regard.” They even saw opposing teams Oak Mountain played in soccer and baseball donate to the community.
“It made us feel great about the community we live in and how good people are when a disaster strikes,” Evers notes.
Over at Oak Mountain Middle School, windows had been shattered, HVAC unit knocked off their pedestals, debris and gravel blown inside the building, and trees and power poles around the building knocked down by the tornado. Soon after came news to students and parents that the middle school would close indefinitely to recover from the damage, and the virtual school setup that had been used during the COVID-19 quarantine went back into effect until the building was able to reopen—uniting the school as a family, with distance, again.
And in the hours after damage struck the middle school, its administrators and counselors came gathered at OMHS to have access to computers and work together to serve their school, and in the weeks that followed the high school stepped up to house the middle school’s special education students.
While the high school itself wasn’t hit, its stadium at Heardmont Park was, and track equipment was destroyed and strewn all over the park just as the team was preparing for sectional and stat meets. But that wasn’t going to stop the them. Spain Park High School allowed the Oak Mountain track team to use some of their pole vaulting and other equipment, and the track itself at Heardmont could still be used. And in the end, Coach Betsy Rogers sent more track athletes to state meet than the school has in any year in the past: 28. And around that time the school’s girls soccer team took home a state championship too.
Amidst unimaginable tragedy, there was much good indeed—through both a pandemic AND tornado damage. “There has been a mantra for this whole year to look for the good and praise it,” Evers says. “At the beginning of the school year, you thought that would be hard to find the good through a pandemic, and then through a tornado ripping through the community and students having no home to go home to.” But not so.
“To see a community unite as it did as Oak Mountain strong was an incredible experience,” Evers continues. “Even families that were hit were giving back and working other people’s yards and giving money when they had nothing still. It was incredible to see the response as a united team. I sat back in awe at seeing the people work together.”
Unlike many of its neighbors, Oak Mountain is not a municipality. It has no governing structure, no city hall. But what it is is a community—a community “that takes care of one another,” notes Dudley, who was in the school’s first graduating class to attend it all four years after the school opened in 1999. “This community came out believing that more than they ever have before, that we are stronger together.”