|GLADE SPRING, Va. -- Fred Hicks points out a gray section of wall near the front of his tire shop. |
This small piece of the building, he said, is the part that survived the tornado intact. He`s keeping it that way, not as a reminder of what happened on the night of April 27-28, 2011, but as a reminder of where he`s been.
On that night, tornadoes devastated parts of Washington County, with the largest swath of destruction centered in Glade Spring, particularly the commercial area around Interstate 81`s Exit 29, which took a direct hit from an EF-3 tornado just after 1 a.m. April 28.
It was one of several communities across the eastern United States hit that night by storms never expected, places where a tornado hadn`t brought damage in decades and, even then, never on this scale.
Hicks has spent the past year rebuilding, and only now is he approaching a return to normal.
When the storm hit a year ago, Hicks said, he was driving on state Route 91. He`d just checked on his daughter, who was living in the apartment inside his business.
Even as the building was blown apart, she survived with no serious injuries. The building was among scores of homes and businesses destroyed in the commercial area around Exit 29.
"She survived right here in the shower," Hicks, 62, said while pointing to the spot now surrounded by new construction, a nearly complete restoration of the destroyed apartment. "I left the shower here because I figured it was F3-proof."
He remembers the storm as a night of chaos, dark, rain and cold. When it was all over, he learned like many in Glade Spring that he was underinsured, and received far less money for his loss than what it would cost to rebuild.
He got some help from the United Way with construction materials for the apartment, he said, but mostly it`s been individuals from near and far who have helped him pick up the pieces.
"There has been some effort putting this back together," he said. "A lot of volunteers, a lot of churches."
Now, he said, he lacks just a few things before he can get his certificate of occupancy and do business in his new building: the addition of a bathroom accessible to the disabled and the installation of exit lights -- things he doesn`t yet have the money to buy.
Beyond the gray wall, the almost-complete building is full of reminders: donated sheet rock that Hicks received from a faith-based organization; metal roofing from a tornado-hit building across the road; block that was left from other destroyed buildings.
"There wasn`t a block left I could use out of this building," except the section of wall that remained, he said. "I never thought of a building blowing all apart, a block building like that."
He said others were generous in donating pieces left of their buildings -- and he spent a long summer chiseling chunks of mortar off cinderblocks to use in rebuilding his tire shop.
A year later, he`s still surviving, he said -- balancing necessities with buying the last few things he needs to reopen the shop. He says getting the occupancy permit is the hardest part.
"Yesterday, I was able to sell six tires, and I made a little bit of money yesterday. And this morning, I put on four lawnmower tires," he said, of a business that has operated from a vehicle and outdoors while he rebuilds. "It`s just little by little, as I get the money to buy things to fix the building."
Looking out the window, he points to other businesses hard-hit by the storm. The Petro truck stop -- an economic engine for the interstate community -- has long since reopened. Peterbilt has received a facelift and other trucking-based businesses have rebuilt.
A new Pizza Plus stands where the old one used to be, and other stores and restaurants, like Wendy`s and Dollar General, are back to business as usual. Hicks, who has been selling tires in Glade Spring since 1979, said he`s looking forward to getting back under his roof.
"I think everything has pretty well come back, and a lot of it has come back better," he said. "The community has a new look, even though the trees are gone and some of the people are gone. Business has come back, and I think we will, too."
After nine months of living in a camper, Jim Sadler and his wife moved into something more spacious: a new garage.
This week, a year after his house was destroyed by a tornado, they reached another progress milestone toward recovery: demolition was finally completed on what remained of their two-story house.
"We`ve had a hard time really," Sadler, 80, said of a lengthy battle with his insurance company that has ultimately brought him just half of his home`s value.
But, he said, he`s grateful to have lived through the storm, which took three lives in Glade Spring.
"When it was light, we all walked out and started crying because we knew there wasn`t a house standing on this road," said Sadler, who lives on Stagecoach Road. "Everything was just gone."
He`s lived there more than three decades, he said. Everyone always thought the mountains would protect them from things like tornadoes.
He said his daughter and her family are among those who left the community because of the storm that leveled the neighborhood.
"They moved to Bristol because they were too scared to stay here. Every time the wind starts blowing and the rain starts, it scares them to death," he said. "They live in Bristol now, and they have a basement."
As for him, he says he`s staying. And while things look strange without the trees, he always did like the view -- and the people. He`s glad to see most of the houses have returned.
"We`re just getting started on ours," he said, "so I guess we`ve got quite a ways to go yet."
Up and down the street where everything was leveled, just about every house has been rebuilt, as has a church that faces I-81. Just about every family has a story about hope and help from neighbors and strangers.
With the work of many volunteers, the Fields family has their house under roof. While a lot of interior work remains, Patty Fields said she, her husband and three children are doing fine for now living in the basement, which has been finished into a living space.
"It`s warm, and we`re happy," she said. "We`re very blessed."
She said the family is working on the house little by little, sometimes with help from friends and family, projecting that they`ll complete it sometime next year.
"We`ve worked so hard, we really have, and we`ll just keep going," she said. "We`ll keep going until it`s finished."
She said they`ve learned a lot from the storm about finances and the need for insurance -- things they wish they`d known before the storm.
Even a year later, she said, people in her community still need help with things like debris removal and home repairs. For those who still want to help, she said, work remains.
(c)2012 The Bristol Herald Courier, Bristol, Va.
Distributed by MCT Information Services
Story image: Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, center, tours a tornado-damaged neighborhood in Pulaski, Va., Friday, April 27, 2012. McDonnell visited Pulaski to tour areas impacted by a devastating tornado that hit southwestern Virginia a year ago. AP Photo/The Roanoke Times, Matt Gentry.
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