Christmas is a time for family, friends and making memories to be passed down through the years. In Mobile, some even hope for snow, not letting the low likelihood of a winter wonderland on the Gulf Coast dampen their spirits. Ten years ago, on Christmas Day, Mobile did experience an uncharacteristic weather event, but instead of powdery white flakes falling gently from the sky, festivities halted due to an EF-2 tornado ripping through the city.
Beginning around 4:10 p.m., a tornado warning was issued for the Mobile area. The tornado strengthened and, by the time it reached the city about 40 minutes later, its wind speeds had accelerated to 111 miles per hour. While the Port City is no stranger to severe weather, its proximity to the Gulf of Mexico generally shields it from the severe tornados that plague much of the Southeast. This day was an exception. The scene shifted from kids playing with their gifts from Santa under the tree to hunkering down. Entire families, once chatting and laughing in the kitchen, crowded into bathrooms and closets. With tubs crowded with children, parents found themselves lying on tile floors away from windows. The tornado made its way through Downtown, reaching Midtown by 5 p.m. and destroying much in its path.
District Court Judge George Hardesty had just moved into his new house in Midtown three days before the storm. On Christmas Day, a friend called to warn him that there was a funnel-shaped cloud in the Theodore area. He laughed and said, “This is Mobile. We have hurricanes, not tornadoes.” But, to prepare, he went to the Walgreens at the Loop to gather supplies. “I was heading towards the exit when, all of a sudden, branches and debris started flying in the air, blowing the doors open,” he says. “So, I slowly backed up from those doors.” After his baptism by fire, he eventually exited the building to find his Chevrolet Trailblazer in a different position than he’d parked it. “It was totaled against the driver’s side of the car, but the passenger’s side had no damage at all,” he said. “I guess that’s the difference between a tornado and a hurricane — the hurricane would have destroyed the whole car.” Several blocks away from his house, people found Spanish-styled roof tiles in their homes or backyards. They were from Murphy High School, which was significantly damaged. Judge Hardesty’s house also was heavily impacted. He moved into a hotel for three months until repairs were made.
Three historical houses that once stood on Dauphin Street are now gone. “The storm knocked them completely down,” says Hardesty. “One, two, three and down.”
These homes were next to the historical Trinity Episcopal Church, also notably harmed. The church’s roof was torn in half, affecting the walls. “It was the most damaging thing that happened to the church since the Civil War, in 1865, when a torpedo blew up and destroyed a large area of the church,” says Robert Howard, who was senior warden of the church at the time.
“The whole front side of the building, where we gather to worship, was blown out … half of the roof blew off, leaning up against one side of the building.”
Efforts to clean up and gather what could be salvaged began immediately. Church members picked up unharmed items — and found a literal flicker of hope amongst the wreckage. The sanctuary lamp, reserved for sacraments, was the only light left burning in the church. Outside, a singular Advent wreath was left hanging from the roof. After all the destruction, this was an indication to him that Christ was present. In all the devastation, he saw hope.
The tornado drew attention from across the country. Jim Cantore, of Weather Channel fame, came to Mobile to record the story and shared that news of the tornado had made the front page of The New York Times. It wasn’t long until people poured in to help the church.
“Membership grew during that timespan, and [we] thought it would send people to other churches,” Howard said. After 20 months of renovations, the congregation was able to worship in their church once more.
“It was the most damaging thing that happened to the church since the Civil War, in 1865, when a torpedo blew up and destroyed a large area of the church.”
Jim Cantore also visited the neighborhood next to the church. Marcelle Naman has a photo of herself and Cantore — whom she refers to as “the master of disaster” — in her backyard after the tornado. Naman wasn’t in her house during the tornado. Her family was coming home from visiting relatives when her neighbors called her, frantic, “There are trees in your house!” When she returned home, holes were punched in the roof, glass windows were blown out and, astonishingly, Murphy High School’s scoreboard was now lying in the front yard. The next morning, all of her friends arrived in her front yard to help however they could. “This is what true friendship and a real community looks like,” she remembers thinking. Though the damage to the Naman’s house was extensive, they were fortunate. “There were houses down our street totally gone,” she says.
On this day, Mobilians did what they’d done so many times throughout history: they banded together and rebuilt. It started with a massive cleanup. The Salvation Army set up outside homes and roads that were blocked by trees. Hot chocolate was served. Clothes and food were handed to those in need, and soon, neighbors began to share their accounts of the storm. Though the destruction was immense, the strength of Mobile was even more so. “It was a community effort, and everyone came together,” Naman says. “It was a big testament for Midtown — people stayed.”