April 1974: Rebuilding effort gets underway early after storm


Moments after a tornado tore its way through downtown Jasper around 8 p.m. on April 3, 1974, the injured descended on People's Hospital.

Some walked. The rest came in ambulances, trucks, cars — "about anything that moved," the Daily Mountain Eagle's Mike Kelley reported. 

Fifty people were treated for storm-related injuries between 8 and 9:10 p.m. with no end in sight.

"We're totally blacked out, and we've got more patients and visitors than we need," hospital administrator Dewey Odom said.

The hospital's halls were lined with those seeking shelter, seeking loved ones and seeking information. The scene was chaotic, but no one was panicking.

The morning brought the first chance to take the full measure of the destruction. The Eagle reported that the city "looked like it had been shelled for a week." The rubble was cleared from the streets within two days thanks to a massive volunteer effort. 

Order also had to be restored to city and county government.

The offices of the Jasper City Commission were relocated temporarily to the city auditorium. Mayor Jack Moore Brown extended an invitation to County Commission Chairman Grover McMillan to occupy any remaining space.

On Friday, April 5, the Eagle reported that the county commission was homeless and using the courthouse square as a rendezvous point. McMillan told the Eagle that time was of the essence to move records, books and documents out of the courthouse before they were damaged by rain or other bad weather. 

All first responders were operating out of mobile homes. 

The Jasper Police Department first moved a mobile home next to City Hall before joining the Commission in the auditorium. The Walker County Sheriff's Department, which had been in the courthouse, set up in front of the jail, and the Jasper Fire Department placed a trailer in front of its demolished building. 

Local leadership were quick to announce that downtown would be rebuilt. A group of 18 government and business representatives met at the Chamber of Commerce on April 5.

Those present included Chamber President W.H. Brown, Congressman Tom Bevill and two aides, State Sen. Bob Wilson, State Rep. Bobby Tom Crowe, Mayor Brown, McMillan, Chamber manager Joe McCluney, Doyle Cobb of the Birmingham architectural firm Cobb, Adam and Benton and officials with the Birmingham Regional Planning Commission.

Wilson announced that officials should resolve to rebuild downtown before a mass movement of businesses to other parts of town occurred.

"This is a historic city, rich in political history and heritage. It's also the economic center of this whole area. It would be a tragedy to let the central city of Jasper go by default," Wilson said. 

Mayor Brown pointed out that many of the property owners downtown did not live locally and would have to be convinced to either sell their property or develop it.

The Eagle reported that "optimism permeated the men and women gathered at the Chamber, many of whom foresee a more modern and beautiful Jasper emerging from the devastation of Wednesday night's storm fury."

Several important stories broke on April 10, the one-week anniversary of the tornado.

The official damage estimate was reported to be $180 million, most of it located within the city limits of Jasper. The tally included 339 damaged buildings, of which 132 were commercial, 189 were residential and 18 were public. (The total was increased less than a week later to 349 damaged structures.) 

Rebuilding was expected to take at least two years.

The Eagle also reported on April 10 that the Walker County Courthouse had been condemned. Federal engineers had declared it "unsafe to the basement."

"With massive walls awry and shaky, the courthouse could, according to county officials, collapse to the basement at any moment and it is accordingly roped off," the Eagle's Skip Tucker reported.

Former Congressman Carl Elliott gave Tucker a history lesson on the county's courthouses. The first was torched by Wilson's Raiders during the Civil War. The second burned in the 1880s and the third burned in 1929. 

Cobb, the Birmingham architect, presented a rendering for a new and improved downtown Jasper on April 15. The proposal called for a pedestrian mall to be built in front of the courthouse on 19th Street. A mall would increase the number of people coming downtown, Cobb told city leaders.

The question, of course, was how to fund it. The idea of financing a portion of it through the Small Business Administration was thrown around, but many of those present said they couldn't think about rebuilding yet because they were still haggling with insurance companies over damage compensation.

Meanwhile, the Walker County Commission was trying to figure out how to have court without a courthouse. The county's attorney presented two conflicting statutes to the board. One said court could be moved to another location and the other said that court business must be held at the courthouse.

The Commission had finally made its new home in the basement of the city auditorium after holding several impromptu meetings in a back office of the building.

Insurance adjusters had not yet said whether they agreed with the feds that the building was unsalvageable.

"The Commissioners agree that the building continues to weaken daily and have said that no one else goes in until it is declared perfectly safe," the Eagle reported.

I'll end on this cliffhanger (though a drive through downtown will spoil it for you) and pick up here next week.

Jennifer Cohron is the Daily Mountain Eagle's features editor.