published Thursday, April 26th, 2012

Tornado recovery experience slow, painful for Flat Rock

Toronto, Canada, volunteer Doug Helinga, left, uses a handsaw while rebuilding a residence near Flat Rock, Ala., after the owner lost his home during one of last year's deadly tornadoes.
Toronto, Canada, volunteer Doug Helinga, left, uses a handsaw while rebuilding a residence near Flat Rock, Ala., after the owner lost his home during one of last year's deadly tornadoes.
Photo by Dan Henry.
The storms, rebuilding and recollections

FLAT ROCK, Ala. — Wrapped in a blanket under a blue tarp, Kathy Clure clutched a gun at her side as the sky grew dark.

Gripped with fear, Clure tried to calm her mind.

In the last few days since her trailer was picked up and thrown into a ditch by the April 27 tornado, Clure had caught a woman taking her books that had blown across the street. She saw another person scouring through her yard.

Clure, who is divorced and has lived in the Henagar area for six years, didn't know what she was going to do. The twister had taken almost everything; she had to protect what little she had left.

A few days later, as she was picking through her scraps, a man drove up her driveway. He introduced himself as Charles Dylan and said: "I want to build you a house."

Like so many other residents in Jackson and DeKalb counties who lost everything, had little or no insurance and received minimal help from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, their options looked bleak. If it wasn't for kindness and the Christian charity of local churches, national organizations and strangers such as Dylan, some residents say they don't know what would have happened.

"I had no clue what I was going to do," Clure said. "If you don't have a home, you don't have anything."

A year later, locals are still relying on that kindness.

• • •

Behind the shelves filled with hammers and nails, Susan Wright sits at her computer in the back office of Strickland Hardware in Flat Rock.

It's been nearly a year since Wright and her daughter cooked off an electric stove, preparing meals for dozens of workers and residents left homeless after four tornadoes touched down in Jackson County. Eight people died, four from the same family southwest of Flat Rock. Just over the county line in DeKalb there were 35 deaths.

Flat Rock is a blip on a map. There is a post office, gas station and a four-way stop. There is no mayor here, Wright said, no one to call for state help.

So Wright did it. She got on television and asked for local support. That's when the truckload of food and supplies and National Guard troops began to roll into the community, she said.

Nearly two weeks after the storms, Wright noticed a stranger in her store and heard he was a carpenter offering to rebuild houses for residents who had nothing. She asked neighbors to follow him and keep track of who he talked with.

"You make sure you watch him," Wright would say.

But to Wright's surprise, no one could find anything critical to say about Charles Dylan. In fact, he was doing what he said he was -- building houses.

• • •

Dylan had never heard of Flat Rock, Ala., before April 27, 2011.

He was in New Orleans, working with Hurricane Katrina victims when the twisters roared across Alabama. Dylan, a retired construction worker from Tennessee, had lived near the bayou since 2006 when he began his own ministry called Carpentershouse. He felt like he needed to go to a town near Tuscaloosa to help with recovery, but his phone kept ringing about a tiny place called Flat Rock.

"People across the country were seeing [Flat Rock] on Facebook," Dylan said.

He planned to stay in Flat Rock for 30 days to help with the cleanup, but then he met a man who had received $900 back from FEMA to help rebuild his home in Flat Rock.

"I felt like God was tapping me on the shoulder," Dylan said. "So I drew out a plan on a piece of paper."

One bedroom. Living room. Kitchen next to the bathroom.

Dylan made some calls and asked churches to donate money for building materials and send volunteers. The man's house got built -- no charge.

A year later, Dylan and local resident Dennis Hicks have built eight houses for residents in the area free of charge. Whatever money residents received from insurance or FEMA went to the raw materials to rebuild, Dylan said.

But it didn't stop with Flat Rock.

Dylan has also coordinated with the Jackson-DeKalb Long Term Recovery Committee -- a local faith-based organization -- that is also committed to rebuilding houses in both counties.

The committee, made up of local churches and other community agencies, discovered hundreds of destroyed homes and hundreds of more heavily damaged in both counties, said committee Chairman David Patty. A year later, they have 220 projects approved, ranging from rebuilding homes to finding furniture to replace what homeowners lost. And so far 28 houses have been rebuilt, Patty said.

He estimated the committee will continue another year before most residents are back in their homes.

Meanwhile, Clure stands in front of her new one-story home. Tears run down her face as she talks about what Dylan did for her. She moved in this year on Valentine's Day.

"If it hadn't been for Charles, I don't know what I would have done," she said. "I went from having nothing to having my home."

about Joy Lukachick...

Joy Lukachick is the city government reporter for the Chattanooga Times Free Press Since 2009, she's covered breaking news, high-profile trials, stories of lost lives and of regained hope and done investigative work. Raised near the Bayou, Joy’s hometown is along the outskirts of Baton Rouge, La. She has a bachelor’s degree in mass communication from Louisiana State University. While at LSU, Joy was a staff writer for the Daily Reveille. When Joy isn't chasing ...

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