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Mayor Steve Bell reflects on tornado recovery

Mayor Steve Bell wasn’t yet mayor of Phil Campbell when that deadly tornado of April 27, 2011 changed his town forever, but he was as impacted as anyone by the storm, on April 27 and in the days and weeks that followed.

“It was overwhelming for everyone, myself included,” Bell said. “It’s amazing how everybody came together … The people who come in when they see a need – it’s a little overwhelming how much help we got.”

Bell shouldered his own share of helping, as so many did. He was heavily involved with the rescue squad, and he was also the recipient of volunteer help – his house, while not wiped to the foundation, sustained enough damage that it had to be town down to the foundation and rebuilt. Bell was displaced for six months while contractors rebuilt – and so many Phil Campbell residents share a similar story.

“You want to help everybody else, but you realize you have to take care of yourself and your own family, too,” Bell said, describing the difficulty of facing challenges from every angle.

Bell remembers clearly how many volunteers came in to help Phil Campbell rebuild – neighbors from near and far, including everyone from private citizens to Red Cross workers.

“We couldn’t have done it without all the volunteers coming in,” said Bell, who remembers the day students from Oregon State University pitched in to work at his house. “We had people from all over who came to help.”

Bell was elected to the mayor’s office a year and a half later, in the thick of recovery efforts. In this role, he has seen Phil Campbell’s conditions continue to improve over time.

Since the tornado, Phil Campbell has benefited from $8.4 million in grants over time for various improvements, through ADECA, the EDA and federal and state groups – not counting FEMA money. Of course, despite that continuing investment, Bell said there is no way to put an amount on what it cost all individual homeowners to rebuild – not to mention the impossibility of putting a price on the lives lost that day.

“There’s still a lot of people who, it’s just too hard for them this time of year,” Bell said. That’s something he had other organizers kept in mind when planning this year’s five-year tornado memorial. Although Bell said even organizers want to memorialize those lost and honor their families, they don’t want to make the day hard for anyone – any harder than it already will be.

Though the loss is immeasurable, Bell said he hopes this year’s memorial, “Recovery, Celebration & Remembrance,” set for this evening at Phil Campbell High School, can be an important part of the healing process. He plans, as part of the memorial, to announce future plans and highlight the progress already made in Phil Campbell.

“The public housing is all rebuilt and fully occupied; that was an area that was just leveled – completely destroyed,” Bell said. “A lot of the residences have been built back – I think pretty much everybody … and we did the sewer replacement projects with the FEMA money and the ADECA money.”

Bell added, “I don’t know of any streets that were in the path of the tornado that have not been repaved. That’s a big plus for town, to get all new surfacing on the streets.”

A new municipal parking lot has taken the place of four storefronts that were damaged by the storm. Also downtown, Caring Confidential Counseling has opened, an antique store has expanded, and one vacant building has been remodeled. The new high school and the splash pad represent prized additions to Phil Campbell.

“We’ve got a new modern new school that is definitely better than the one we had before,” Bell emphasized.

And so though it can be easy to focus on the negative and everything Phil Campbell – and Franklin County – lost on April 27, 2011, Bell hopes people can see the positive too, and look forward with hope to a bright future for Franklin County.

“Don’t forget how we got here. Remember how we all came together and keep that unity going,” Bell said. “Together we see what we can accomplish, and we want to continue that together.”