KIMBERLY, Ala. — It was too dark to see it, but they knew it was coming. Twenty-five people gathered in the basement at Kimberly Church of God along Highway 31 here in a speck of a town just north of Birmingham to find safety from a tornado that was quickly bearing down on them Monday night.
Storms had been pounding the tiny town for hours, hitting one after the other since the afternoon. It was typical springtime weather in a place where tornadoes haven’t exactly been strangers. A stray twister here and there had threatened Kimberly before, including during the deadly tornado outbreak of April 2011 when 238 people in Alabama were killed during a three-day stretch of storms.
But none had ever taken a direct hit at Kimberly — until last night. Just before 10 p.m., people began flooding into the church’s basement recreation area, which sits right below the main chapel. It’s usually a space for potlucks or wedding receptions, but Monday night it was the town’s refuge, giving protection to residents who largely don’t have shelters of their own.
“This is a tank of a church,” said Stan Cooke, who has been the congregation’s pastor for the last decade. The building, he said, was constructed out of reinforced concrete and was generally considered the strongest structure in this largely rural area.
“You’d probably have to have an F-5 tornado to blow it away,” Cooke said, referring to one of the strongest tornadoes possible under the Fujita Scale, which measures such things.
Still, Mother Nature tried, taking dead aim at the church Monday night as part of a deadly severe weather outbreak that has killed 31 people in the South since Sunday.
While the National Weather Service has not yet determined how strong the tornado that hit Kimberly was, the storm caused major damage at the church — tearing off the building’s entire front facade made of brick and stained glass. The roof was ripped off of the main chapel, and an adjacent building where the church held Sunday school classes and operated a nursery was destroyed.
Even people in the basement weren’t entirely safe. As the tornado hit, the building shook and debris began raining down into the room, followed by a waterfall of water from the torrential rains that followed. For a time, according to Cooke, people were trapped in the basement by debris — though most escaped without major injury, physical at least.
But there is heartache. As he surveyed what was left of his church, Cooke was visibly emotional, choking back tears as he gave a reporter a tour of the main sanctuary, which had only recently been remodeled. That part of the building was largely still standing, though the pews and the floor and everything else were soaked with rainwater, which continued to drip from the ceiling.
On stage, members of the congregation had thrown tarps over new musical equipment that had been debuted only weeks ago. Everywhere there were strange signs of how tornadoes work — a broken cross cracked in half near flimsy columns on the stage that should have been blown to bits but somehow weren’t.
It was the same in the rest of the town. Behind the church, a home and the local post office sat largely undamaged. But just yards away, across the street, the fire station was completely obliterated, with hoses and other equipment strewn across the ground as if there had been an explosion.
But according to residents, no one had been killed, and 12 hours after the darkest night this town had ever known, they were quickly at work, hesitant to even stop and talk to members of the media who had descended to cover the tornado’s aftermath.
It was hard to blame them — the air was thick with humidity and the skies were already a bit ominous, telling signs of more storms that are expected to hit here later today.
At the church, members of the congregation and other volunteers quickly worked to cart away as much debris as possible and to cover up gaping holes in the facade and in the roof ahead of more bad weather.
“I cried when I saw this,” Cooke admitted, his voice thick with emotion. “I really cried. But the church is not the people, the people are the church. And we just have to remember that.”