Photos and Words By Sue Mead for PickupTrucks.com
Birmingham, Ala. – The hum of generators blankets the stillness as the sun sinks behind the hills here. Punctuating the new reality of life in this Southern state is the wail of ambulances and the flashing lights of rescue vehicles as workers comb the rubble in the grim search for the missing.
The swarm of tornadoes that ravaged the South devastated families, houses, towns and cities. Pickup trucks are some of the best tools to help start putting things back together again, and so we traveled to Alabama to see how they’re being put to use.
Some of the survivors in suburban Archadelphia are visiting the homes they used to live in. Those we meet are happy to be alive and have returned to retrieve whatever is worth salvaging, or simply to try to make sense of the horror. Those who saw and heard the tornadoes said they looked and sounded like a bomb.
A Ford F-150 trapped in debris and a total loss in a Birmingham neighborhood.
Pickups of every size and sort dot the landscape. Convoys of utility trucks line the highways and byways, as their riders work around the clock to restore some semblance of normalcy within the wide swath of destruction left by the violent twisters, whose winds topped 200 mph.
Pickups troll neighborhoods, and their drivers are offering food, water and goods. At Exit 132 along Interstate 20, trucks are providing nearly every type of service and aid. The trucks and their drivers are delivering what can’t be quantified in tow rating, payload or cargo-carrying capacity — the message of “hope and goodwill.”
Sandra, Marie and James Phillips, along with Brandon Sparks of Birmingham, ride along in James’ GMC 2500 past a rubble field of houses torn from their foundations interspersed with uprooted trees. Other trees have been left standing, stripped of their branches and covered with debris.
A repair crew from Eagle SWS, an emergency response company, started to tackle damage with a Ram Heavy Duty.
The Phillipses call out to each person they see, offering water and food, and they offer care packages of diapers, toiletries and clothing, as well as cell phones. Representing Good Life, a non-profit group, they leave water bottles along the roadside, knowing that they will be needed when the sun rises tomorrow.
A.J. Farley will be back by then. Farley’s home is a loss, and he also lost his older-model Buick Century. Despite the trauma, he feels blessed to be alive and is happy to show his new wheels: He bought a 2011 Chevrolet Silverado 1500 with his emergency insurance check, so he could carry what he has left and begin a new life. Loading his truck with the few items that survived the storm, Farley says he clung to the floor of his home when the tornado struck.
Farley survived the deadliest twister outbreak since the Great Depression. According to the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, on April 27 more than 328 tornados cut across seven states, leaving in their wake more than 350 dead, thousands injured and scores still missing. It was a day in history that will be remembered for many grim tasks.
Tuscaloosa, Ala. — "It’s no different from any other disaster," says truck expert Bruce Smith, who lives in Tuscaloosa. "Trucks here in Alabama are being used as they are supposed to be used.”
"They are towing trailers and hauling goods and supplies," says Smith, editor of Pro Pickup magazine. "The pickup is a work tool. It’s the most important tool to help after tornadoes, floods and earthquakes. It’s what people use as primary transportation and the first thing into any disaster area.
"It was like a Bush Hog struck the ground and drove clear from the western border of Alabama into Tennessee,” says Smith, who, along with fellow staffers, has been delivering truckloads of goods and supplies, and using chain saws to help clear roadways. Smith even drove his "project truck" to the community center to provide support. "Randall-Reilly [Smith’s publisher] has been paying normal wages to its staff who are helping, and they have been helping out, too," Smith says.
Homer Butler, director of the United Way of West Alabama, received two donated Chevy Silverado trucks from GM that were immediately put to use.
GM was an early responder as well, donating a dozen Silverado crew-cab pickup trucks and a GMC Savana full-size van to the Southeastern U.S. United Way. Also, the General Motors Foundation is giving a $100,000 grant to the American Red Cross, while GM’s OnStar is providing crisis-assistance services for subscribers in the affected states, offering free hands-free calling minutes and turn-by-turn navigation, in addition to providing six months of free service and 1,000 hands-free calling minutes for each of the donated Silverados.
"Chevrolet has a strong commitment to its communities, and we are working with our dealers, our employees, and relief agencies to help people in the Southeast recover from the storms," said Alan Batey, vice president of Chevrolet sales and service.
Other truck makers have pledged dollars to tornado disaster relief efforts. Toyota and Nissan have both made contributions to the American Red Cross; Toyota has donated $1 million, while Nissan has designated $115,000 to aid the victims of the disaster. Toyota will also give support and assistance to Toyota employees who lost their homes.
Utility repair crews were assisted by this GMC Sierra HD.
Grateful to be a recipient of three GM pickups, Homer Butler, director of the United Way of West Alabama, began to use the trucks immediately to distribute goods to temporary emergency locations and loaned one to the Boys & Girls Clubs of Tuscaloosa. “Every vehicle they had was destroyed," says Butler, “and they were renting a pickup. They needed the truck for hauling things. Once all the search and rescue is done, we will develop a long-term recovery committee.
"It was almost more than I could comprehend," Butler says. He was away when the tornadoes hit. "I came back to such destruction and so many people killed and injured; in our city, we had 41 killed and 80 still missing. They are still combing affected areas with dogs.
"I drove through after and literally felt lost — the landmarks are not there, and there are piles of rubble. I don’t know how we are going to get back to normalcy. It will take a good five years to recover."
Marvin Tolley, of Tuscaloosa, whose home looked to be a total loss, had already begun the task of cleaning his yard and putting his life back together, loading the trailer behind his trusty truck.
"It’s just wood and sticks," says the Ford F-150 owner. "We’ll be all right."
This Nissan Frontier had been inspected to make sure nobody was injured inside the vehicle.
Sales are surging at Townsend Ford in Tuscaloosa, but sales manager Jim Phillips isn’t happy why it’s happening.
"People are doing replacement vehicles for what they lost, and the city has lost everything in the way of vehicles as well," Phillips says. "Business is a lot better, and we’re selling a lot of trucks, but it is not a good thing. It’s going to take a long time for things to be back to normal."
Other dealers are simply victims of the storm. Mike Pick, sales manager of Tuscaloosa’s Contemporary Mitsubishi dealership, says he hopes to salvage 10 of 190 vehicles that were on his lot. He used his damaged Silverado and a few other trucks to help out after the storm and to help move some salvaged furniture out of the dealership.
Used trucks at a dealership weren't spared damage from flying debris.
"We lost everything," Pick says.
If you want to help, donations can be made to the United Way of West Alabama