Mar 08 2007

Lives shattered as twister hits Enterprise

Southeast Sun

Though the sun shines this week on Enterprise, sadness still casts a shadow on the community as it buries its dead and deals with the grief and uncertainty that a dark and violent storm left in its wake March 1.

But city leaders are bolstered by the words of President George W. Bush, who promised that Enterprise, its leaders and citizens will see the sun again.

“This town refuses to be devastated,” he said during a brief visit to the city Saturday morning. “Out of this rubble will emerge a better tomorrow.”

Bush told students dealing with the death of eight of their classmates that “out of devastation can come hope,” and he urged them to be strong and to remember, but to look ahead as well.

“This town will not succumb to the effects of this storm,” he said. Mayor Kenneth Boswell assured Bush that, with much-appreciated help, the city and its grief-stricken people will survive.

“We were strong before this and I guarantee that we will be stronger when this is over,” Boswell said.

Bush came to Enterprise Saturday to view the damage left by the worst natural disaster to ever hit the 111-year-old city. The city of approximately 26,000 residents, which embraces the towns and communities beyond its borders, was rocked by an unusually powerful tornado that killed nine people.

He pledged support and declared Enterprise a disaster area so that federal dollars could become available to both individuals and agencies to fund clean-up and recovery.

The twister, which packed winds of at least 160 math, cut a quarter-mile wide path of destruction all the way across the city from near the airport on the southwest side of Boll Weevil Circle to past Sommer Brooke subdivision off Porter Lunsford Road on the northeast side.

It destroyed 236 homes and damaged 360 others, leaving hundreds homeless and others enduring the hardships and despair that the damage left behind.

It left hearts broken by the loss of loved ones, taken suddenly by the unpredictable weather system that disintegrated parts of Enterprise High School, considered not just a landmark structure but the heartbeat of the community, because it held the community’s children.

When the tornado blasted through the school, it crumbled walls and blew away roofs. When it was over, the new auxiliary gym was demolished, the two-year old JROTC wing was severely damaged, the science wing was gone and eight EHS students were dead.

Killed were 16-year-olds Michael Bowen of Fort Rucker, Peter Dunn and Michelle Wilson of Enterprise, A.J. Jackson of Level Plains, 17-year-old Ryan Mohler of Level Plains, 16-year-old Kathryn Strunk of New Brockton, and 17-year-olds Michael Tompkins and Jamie Vidensek of Enterprise.

Just moments before, 83-year-old Edna Strickland had been badly cut by shattering glass when the tornado struck her home on College Street. She died of her wound a short time later.

“It’s absolutely painful,” said Mayor Kenneth Boswell, who had already attended six funerals this week. Boswell and city leaders and department heads had worked around the clock since the tornado struck, but he said the hard work has been worth it to keep the people as safe as possible and help them handle the aftermath of the tragedy.

He asked the people to be patient and assured that the city’s clean-up and recovery plan is working, but it may take some time.

He thanked everyone in the community and in the neighboring communities like Daleville for adopting a “neighbor-helping-neighbor attitude” in the wake of he deadly storm.

“The President was so impressed with the spirit of our city,” Boswell said. “During his flyover, he could see people working and helping each other.”

As mayor, Boswell said that through his sadness, he feels joy in that spirit of brotherhood that he’s witnessed, and he thanks not only those within the community but those individuals and agencies from throughout Wiregrass, the state and other parts of the country who are lending a helping hand.

“Sometimes, you may think that there’s no humanity left in the world, but when something like this happens, you see the extent of kindness and love that has been offered, and it restores your faith,” he said.

Longtime Councilman Bill Cooper agreed, saying the outpouring of sympathy and help has been overwhelming. Cooper said the tornado represented “one of the worst situations I’ve ever seen.”

Believed to be the only tornado to cause as many fatalities and property damage, the tornado hit hardest in the Baptist Hill area, the high school, the Alberta and Holly Hill area, and the Dixie Drive and Lake Oliver Drive area.

“In the areas affected, it looks like a bomb has dropped,” Cooper said. “God was just with us, or it could have been much worse.”

The tragedy drew the attention of media representatives from throughout the state, nation and world, and local officials said the influx of national media also has brought an influx of help and well wishes.

It also brought the attention of state and federal elected officials. During the past week, the site has been toured by Gov. Bob Riley, and U.S. Sens. Richard Shelby and Jeff Sessions, in addition to Bush.

All of them committed to do all that they can to bring state and federal dollars to the area for recovery and rebuilding.

“The governor and the president are with us 100 percent,” Cooper said. “They’re going to work with us to make things better; Enterprise will be able to get back on its feet.

“But we will not forget,” he said.