A student at Phil Campbell Elementary put his head on his desk and began to cry. When the substitute asked him what was wrong, he replied, “I just miss the sound of Ms. Gentry’s voice.”
Editor’s Note: In 2009, Larry Lee went looking for the best schools in rural Alabama. He found Phil Campbell Elementary, in the northwest corner of the state. (See Yonder story here.) Recently, Larry returned to Phil Campbell, which had been devastated by the tornadoes of April 27th.
Though her office door was closed, Jackie Ergle struggled to maintain her composure. Her lip quivered, her voice got shaky and she blinked several times to stem the tears.
None of this was unexpected. After all she was recalling the events of April 27 when the heavens opened and sent fingers of violent winds flailing across Alabama.
Jackie is principal at Phil Campbell Elementary, a community of about 1,000 people tucked away in the southeast corner of Franklin County.
The first storm warnings sounded at 10:45 a.m. that fateful Wednesday. Students and faculty spent most of the next two hours lining the halls as they’d been taught to do.
“They were great,” said Jackie. “Even though we missed lunch, everyone was well-behaved.”
The warning was lifted at 12:30 p.m. and the central office in Russellville advised all county schools to dismiss as more severe weather was expected later in the day. Students loaded on buses as quickly as possible and headed home.
It was the last time Jackie would ever see one of her teachers and two of her students.
The tornado that first raked across Hackleburg, then Phil Campbell, hit about mid-afternoon. Almost every structure just to the south of Jackie’s school was obliterated. The high school next door received major damage.
The elementary school was luckier. While trees were toppled, chain link fences twisted and play ground equipment warped, Jackie’s school miraculously had little structural damage.
It will probably need a new roof. A row of computers in a lab was flooded, and there are now cracks in some concrete block walls, but Jackie is grateful that Providence directed stronger winds elsewhere.
However, recovery from an incident of this magnitude is about much more than bricks and mortar or desks and computers. It’s about trying to heal scars that will last for years.
For instance, on the second day students came back to school a thunderstorm brewed to the west and thunder boomed. “Fear and panic gripped so many of our kids,” recalls Jackie. “These are youngsters who’ve just seen unbelievable destruction and in some cases, lifeless bodies, and these memories will last a long, long time.”
Patricia Gentry taught at Phil Campbell for 18 years. She was a second grade teacher who lost her life in the storm. Recently a student in her class put his head on his desk and began to cry. When the substitute asked him what was wrong, he replied, “I just miss the sound of Ms. Gentry’s voice.”
Alabamians by the thousands have responded to the April 27th disaster. They’ve worked tirelessly as volunteers, collected canned goods and bottled water, set up feeding stations and much, much more. Elvin Hill elementary school in Shelby County had a fund-raiser and sent Phil Campbell $1,000.
“I have been overwhelmed at the help and support we’ve received,” Jackie Ergle says.
Like with most schools in Alabama, at the beginning of each year students take home a “supply list” of things needed by the school. But even in the best of times, this is a hardship for some families in Phil Campbell, where 77 percent of the students receive free-reduced lunches and the median household income is less than 50 percent of the national average.
In fact, the PTO presented the school a check for $3,500 on Monday before the storm to purchase more playground equipment. But after the storm, the PTO decided to refund these contributions because, Jackie says, “so many people are hurting.”
Against such a backdrop, returning to normalcy isn’t easy. But Jackie Ergle and her staff are trying as hard as they can. She is hopeful that she will not have to ask for parental help with supplies when the new school year begins in August.
Carla Knight is the bookkeeper for the Franklin County school system. She has established a special account to handle contributions for Phil Campbell elementary.
Any contribution you can make to help make Phil Campbell Elementary whole again will be appreciated more than you will ever know.
Checks should be payable: Phil Campbell Elementary and mailed to Carla Knight, P. O. Box 610, Russellville, AL 35653-0610.
Larry Lee lives in Montgomery. He is the former director of the Center for Rural Alabama. [email protected]