Tornado kills one, leaves heavy damage

Published 6:34 pm Wednesday, March 25, 2009

It was one of those November mornings that even in the Deep South we have learned to treat with suspicion. It was almost too pleasant, with no hint of winter but a promise of a beautiful warm day, that November 17, 1968.

Though it has been 41 years, the facts are so vivid in my mind; I even brought along my trusty Polaroid as I sometimes did. I was so excited and anxious to launch my new shiny patrol boat and begin the duties of my new job, never once expecting the nightmare that was to follow.

During this time, I was assigned to patrol Lay Lake, a tranquil part of the Coosa River in central Alabama, impounded between Lay and Logan Martin hydroelectric dams. In fact, Lay Dam was undergoing some “reconstruction.”I remember as I cruised the lower part of the lake in Chilton County, I became aware that it had become slightly overcast with a constant wind out of the southeast. I had little time to ponder the weather conditions—I had just received a request to search for a young boy who was long overdue. It was a little past lunchtime when suddenly I was relieved to locate the young boy, safe but out of gas.

Our radio communication was terrible at this time; the only communication was the Forestry Department. Mrs. Headley over at the Peach Tower had instructions to leave the tower in inclement weather (excellent suggestion). Mrs. Kate in Coosa County had a transmitter in her home, so that’s who I was hearing, a scratchy, cracking and barely audible radio transmission: “…Tornado struck Chilton County…Coosa River…lost on Lake Mitchell.”O my God! Tornado in November? It’s so calm here! Is my family safe, are the children scared?

After towing the youngster home safely and checking for damage above the dam, the radio repeated: “…lost on Lake Mitchell…” Being only 5 miles by water, I was still blocked off by the dam and was assigned to work my area only. I knew that no one was on patrol on Lake Mitchell! What was I to do? I was suddenly overpowered by the fact that someone needed me. I knew the area as well as anyone. Why was I loading my boat on the trailer? What if the tornado came back and hit my area? I knew not to leave my post, but someone needed me!

I was still worrying about the calculated decision that I had made to leave my post as I trailered my boat south. Since my home was en route to the boat launch at Higgins Ferry, I stopped off and checked on them. They were surprised to see me and knew nothing of a tornado or even bad weather! Could it all be a mistake?

I arrived at the boat launch to see no vehicles or boat trailers. The familiar site was just as peaceful and tranquil as ever. The only difference was I was the only person there! Was it some cruel joke?

My questions were answered just a couple hundred yards south as I faced reality. It reminded me of a war zone or a horror movie. Lots of damage in the mouth of Bird Creek and one giant path had been cut across the lake into Hatchett Creek. Cottages, boathouses, boats and debris was strewn everywhere. Still, with all the devastation, the silence was deafening. Except an occasional flutter of debris from the treetops, there was no sign of life. No birds, no boat motors, nothing. Was I the only person here? Who did all the boats that were scattered about belong to? Some were swamped or partially submerged—and some mysteriously floating as if nothing happened.

To be continued…