Many thanks to Louis Berney, former writer for the Montgomery Advertiser for his account four days distant from the Brent Tornado.
By LOUIS BERNEY
Advertiser Staff Writer
A hot Thursday afternoon in Brent, four days following the rampaging tornado which left this once serene Bibb County town in shambles.
Walking down old Highway 5, Brent’s main business drag, one is reminded of the all too familiar scenario of a war-ravished Vietnam hamlet.
This road is sealed off to all but emergency vehicles, as power and telephone workers are everywhere, trying to restore electricity and communications to a townsfolk still unable to fathom the extent of damage.
Army jeeps patrol the area, with National Guardsmen standing every couple hundred yards to fend off looters. There have been few, as all have been busy trying to pick up the pieces of a totally destroyed community. A curfew is in effect from 8 p.m. until 6 a.m.
Five died, more than a hundred were injured. Forty businesses were demolished, and about 130 homes destroyed as the devastating twister took but a matter of seconds to grind its way through Brent last Sunday night.
The highway is relatively empty during the early afternoon, except for the workers climbing poles to hand new wires, carting off debris, and rummaging through the rubble of former buildings to salvage the salvageable.
Brent citizens are scarce to be seen. Many, left homeless, have temporarily deserted their town to live with friends or relatives in other areas. Others slowly are sifting through the destruction of their homes and businesses, quietly trying to create an order out of the chaos nature delivered them.
The yellow and green Alabama Power Company trucks and the white Southern Bell vehicles motor up and down the highway. But everyone is too busy for commotion, and the scene is quiet.
With two exceptions — a long funeral procession to bury Andrew Mitchell, one of the victims, and a train passing through the heart of what was a city just one week ago.
Brent was first settled in the 1890’s and incorporated in 1913, when a population of 300 was busily employed at one of the two sawmills, two cotton mills or one oil mill in operation.
The mills were established after the railroad tracks were laid down, and word has it that the town was named for the man who brought the railroad in — J. Brent Armstrong, who also served as the town’s first postmaster.
Located a mile and a half from the Cahaba River and a like distance from the county seat of Centreville, Brent grew to its present population of 2,014 because of the presence of the railroad.
On Thursday about 25 merchants met with Mayor Melford Worrell to find another rallying point and generate new enthusiasm for rebuilding their destroyed town.
The mood was one of optimism, though tinted with a dose of caution. “I have the desire, but I have to have the finances to go with it,” one woman said, apparently reflecting the feelings of others.
The mayor told the merchants that several federal government agencies — the Small Business Administration, the Internal Revenue Service, the Federal Housing Administration, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Farmers Home Administration — would be in town to advise citizens of their opportunities for government funds.
“We’re in trouble now. We need these people,” some said. The merchants, as well as those citizens who had lost their homes, showed a strong urge to remain put and rebuild. But the problem of money was omnipresent.
Most had heard that the federal government had promised aid, but no one knew exactly how to go about getting it. Or when it would be forthcoming.
Most merchants at the meeting supported an idea to form a corporation among themselves to finance the entire rebuilding of the downtown section. Each individual merchant would then rent a building from the corporation.
Such a system would help defray the high costs each individual would have to expend to construct his own new building.
Some felt the project would add new life to the city, offering an opportunity to create a modern downtown area.
“We can have a town we’re all proud of. This is the time for our town, if we’re every going to do anything, to do it now,” a man said.
As the meeting ended, it was agreed upon to form a committee which would solicit advice from an architectural firm in the hopes of one day building a mall or contemporary business complex.
The feeling was not unanimous, however. Col. Millard Daley, 154th National Guard battalion commander, threw a bolt of pessimism into the generally enthusiastic meeting.
“We’re off the beaten path down here,” he said. In the past, Daley reminded, several supermarket firms had decided against establishing in Brent, which some consider a suburb of Centreville.
Daley, who owns two car dealerships in Brent, both of which were wiped out by the tornado, said he would have to take a long, hard look before deciding to start anew.
“We were dying the way we were,” he said, in cautioning others to heed his hesitancy. Yet his admonitions met with verbal resistance, and Daley remained the staunch realist among a group of eager idealists.
As commander of the Guard, he announced that the 50 guardsman still on duty (there were 245 immediately after the disaster struck) would most likely be removed Sunday evening.
Looting was close to nonexistent and the guards’ only purpose at this point was enforcing security. Initially, units from other counties had assisted in the operation of helping the wounded and the homeless.
In the guards’ Centreville-Brent Armory, meals were still being provided for those who needed them. And it was this aspect of the week-that-was in Brent — the willingess of others to help — that so deeply touched those whose lives were so totally upset by the vicious wrath of the tornado.
“It would have taken us weeks to dig out by ourselves,” said Glenn Peak, manager of the Bibb Supply Co. Everyone involved with the clean-up effort had humble praise for the scores of volunteers, both individuals and organizations, who lent assistance.
Among those involved were the Red Cross, rescue units from 25 neighboring towns and counties, the State Highway Department, college students, citizens from Centreville, church groups, and on and on.
But perhaps most noteworthy were the ubiquitous volunteers of the Salvation Army. Maj. Elbert Steadham of Tuscaloosa was one of the first outsiders to arrive in Brent Sunday night.
And Thrusday afternoon he was still there, giving out free food and drink from the Salvation Army disaster mobile unit which seemed to be the hub of activity in the business district.
The Army fed thousands a day — be they the homeless, the injured, a power company worker, or even a curiosity seeker. Cold drinks, sandwiches, water (which for several days was almost non-existent), hot plates, even clothing and canned goods for those who sought them.
“Everyone’s going all out,” Steadham said, praising other volunteers for their cooperative efforts. Steadham spoke of the Brent citizens themselves, observing them to be optimistic about their future, with no signs of bitterness.
Indeed, many of the townsfolk consider themselves lucky, and with apparent justification, for the indiscriminate path of destruction weaved by the twister befuddles the mind.
Houses stand intact and practically unaffected less than 50 feet from former dwellings now completely obliterated beyond recognition. Half a store is blown to smithereens, while shelves in another section are still filled and seemingly ready for shoppers. A huge lumber warehouse is nowhere to be seen while the stacks of wood it sheltered remain precariously unruffled.
A matter of inches, being in the right place at the right time. Citizens of Brent know how precious life is.
Like V. W. Hobson, whose house looks just as it always did. Hobson has been in Brent since 1910, and he remembers the last tornado, which struck in 1934.
Hobson spent Thursday afternoon looking over old books on the porch of his home. His neighbors, on either side of his house, are elsewhere. Their homes are now but splinters.
His sister lived in one of them but has since moved to Tuscaloosa to live with her children. “I doubt she’ll ever be back,” he said.
During the week, Hobson, like all people in Brent, was without electricity or water. “I have a little old possum-hunting lamp for light,” he said, adding that he “scrapped up enough water to take one bath.” Guard units and the Salvation Army brought in water for residents.
As the afternoon heat begins to subside, more people can be seen on old Highway 5. An insurance agent checking out a claim, a Selma minister offering good tidings, a few out-of-town relatives looking for demolished homes in which they once visited their kin.
At 6 p.m. when the road is reopened, the carnival sets in. Sightseers come to gawk at the state’s newest landmark — a tiny unfortunate little village 180 degrees across the universe from that Merry Old Land of Oz.
But the people of Brent are oblivious to the visitors, too busy to notice and too proud to care.
“Everybody’s like I am, they’re in trouble. But I love old Brent,” says Mrs. E.L. Cook, 78, whose house is but a gaping crevice of lumber. She is living with relatives a few miles down the road but will return home if at all possible.
“It’s going to be a long drawn-out thing. It’s going to be hard. It’s not going to be easy. But we can do it,” Mayor Worrell told his people.
And so with humility, valor, and a guarded optimism, the beleaguered citizens of Brent try to pick up the pieces. But whether this small county town can fit all the pieces into the neat and orderly community it only so recently was remains to be seen.
To paraphrase Police Chief James Fondren, only time and the benevolence of Washington, D.C., will tell.