Gurganus, a teacher at Cordova Elementary School and minister at Dovertown Church of Christ, struggled to describe what he saw when he reopened the doors.
“If you’ve ever seen on TV or in cartoons especially when they close the door and they open it to another world,” he said. “To see that kind of before and after in a second’s worth of time ... I don’t know if this town has ever gone through this much.”
The dozens of tornadoes that ripped through Alabama on April 27 killed more than 300 people in the Southeast. Nine from Walker County died, including four from Cordova.
During the early morning of April 27, straight-line winds damaged much of the historic store fronts on Cordova’s main street. That afternoon, a tornado swiped through the town creating a path of rubble from Cordova’s old ball field beyond the Piggly Wiggly.
Three days after the storms, a hilltop at the town was left barren, only a handful of trees stripped of their branches and leaves remained. Below the hill, a drainage ditch beside the Piggly Wiggly held tons of debris —hot water heaters, busted stereo speakers and plywood turned into splinters.
Several crews of first responders from across the county have filled the parking lots of the town for the last two weeks.
“The support down here has been overwhelming,” said Barney firefighter Justin Hyche as he handed out brown bags of food and bottled water to volunteers and victims on April 29. That day, a group of civilians were also grilling steaks and ribs in the Piggly Wiggly parking lot.
Hyche said he had been helping in Cordova since the day of the storm.
“Everybody has been here pretty much non-stop,” he said.
In between handing out the brown bags, he signed up another firefighter from McCollum for volunteer work.
At Gurganus’ home, which he said was built sometime between 1860 and 1885, most of the roof was peeled away. Outside the home three days after the storms, sections of tin roof were wrapped around the branches of the property’s oak trees. Upstairs, several doors opened to bedrooms with four walls and cloudless, sunny skies.
While walking to his backyard and looking over the damage, Gurganus said, “My family is safe, that’s all that matters.”
Gurganus’ home was built by Benjamin McFarland Long, who founded Cordova.
Gurganus told about a window pane near a door to the home’s balcony, which Long’s daughter marked with her engagement ring on her wedding day in the 1800s.
Gurganus said he was raised in the home, and his parents were often approached by business owners seeking the property. However, his mother thought the home should always belong to a family, he said.
Though the property faces 1st Avenue, Gurganus said Long built the home looking on to Cordova’s Main Street. Long also donated the land on which Long Memorial Memorial United Methodist Church was built.
While Gurganus was inspecting the damage to his home’s chimney last Friday, a friend of Gurganus walked up, gave him a hug and told him she was so sorry about his home but so thankful he and his family were safe.
“This is what has gotten us through,” Gurganus said before he embraced the friend.