Phil Campbell tornado survivors hope new radar will better warn people

Twenty-seven people died in Phil Campbell on April 27, 2011.

Posted: Oct 6, 2020 9:26 PM
Updated: Oct 6, 2020 9:26 PM

April 27, 2011 changed how many Alabamians react to the threat of severe weather.

Sixty-two tornadoes ripped across that day. Many survivors are still trying to cope with the loss of friends and family who died in the storms.

The small town of Phil Campbell in Franklin County lost 27 people when the EF5 tornado shattered lives and property almost a decade ago.

In tornadoes like this, seconds can mean life or death for people and that's why WAAY 31 has been working to bring you our new StormTracker Early Warning Radar Network.

"It was like you had took a broom and swept it off," said Judy Evett.

That's how she described what her daughter's home in Phil Campbell looked like on April 27. Evett is alive today because she took shelter in a bathroom in her home.

The room she was in was the only part of her house left standing, but the loss she suffered that day is almost unimaginable. The tornado took Judy’s mother, Lucille Nix, and her sister, Martha Pace.

The tornado killed her daughter, Patricia Gentry, who was a teacher just like her mom. Patricia’s husband, Don, Judy’s son-in-law, also died that day.

Judy's whole family lived on Wyatt Drive. No one in her family built back after the storm because it's just too painful.

"David said 'mom, don't look back' and it was wires and everything, you know, and he said 'I got all out of the house I'll ever need,'" said Evett, as she described the moment her son got her from her home that was destroyed.

Talking about the loss is still painful, but Evett remembers what one neighbor in particular did for her family and what it meant to her.

"Heather called me. That's my granddaughter [Patricia Gentry's daughter]. She said 'nanny, they want me to identify my mother.' She said 'I can't do it,' and she's crying and I thought, oh, I can't do this but I'll do it for her. I told Steve about it and he said 'Judy don't worry. I'll go up there. I helped search for them and I'll go up there and help identify her.' Y'all, if I had to identify her like that, it was closed casket. It would have made it so much worse," said Evett.

That neighbor named Steve is Steve Bell. Today, he’s the mayor of Phil Campbell. He helped others that horrible day even while dealing with losses of his own. Bell's home was also on Wyatt Drive and was nearly destroyed by the tornado.

"Back then, even we got warnings but it was so broad," said Bell. "I had four neighbors within about 150 yards of my house that we lost, so we went from survival to recovery immediately almost."

Evett said the tornado took her family from her but it never shook her faith, and she hangs on to those good memories.

"Sometimes in life you play the thankful game. You thank the good Lord that you had the time with them that you had," said Evett.

Evett said she's happy to know the WAAY 31 StormTracker Early Warning Radar Network will better warn people in places like Phil Campbell. She knows how precious early alerts about storms can be and hopes it will save other families from the pain she and her family have suffered.

"I'm very thankful that we will have more of a warning. Timing is important and knowing where to go to," said Evett.

When you go into Phil Campbell on Highway 13, you can see Phil Campbell Memorial Park. It's dedicated to all the people lost that day.

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