Thursday, March 01, 2007

What nature can't destroy

It's Oak Grove all over again.

The twisted wreckage. The mounting death toll. The soulless combination of natural disaster and unnatural chaos. The lack of rhyme or reason. The unspeakable horror visited upon a close-
knit small Alabama town left to piece itself back together after the sort of utter destruction that one can comprehend only through direct personal experience.

They were all present in Oak Grove nine years ago on a terrible April day when 32 people in western Jefferson County (and two elsewhere in the state) lost their lives. Today, they've reared their ugly heads again in Enterprise.

Enterprise's high school, like the one in Oak Grove, was reduced to rubble. But one key distinction led to today's tragedy on the Wiregrass. Perhaps the only aspect of fortune that smiled on the tiny Birmingham bedroom community on April 8, 1998, was that the Oak Grove tornado came at night and leveled a mostly empty school. Enterprise's tornado, though, cruelly hit during the heart of the school day, claiming at least five lives (out of the seven confirmed to have been lost statewide at this time) and deeply scarring the entirety of southeast Alabama.

For the family and friends of those killed today, those scars will never heal, and my thoughts and prayers -- and no doubt those of many thousands of others -- are with them. But no matter how deadly and horrific, no tornado can kill Enterprise residents' sense of community, of shared duty to help each other, of determination to rebuild some semblance of a normal life. Mother Nature can destroy all manner of things, but one thing she can't touch with wind or rain is the human spirit.

Enterprise is heartbroken, and many dark days still lie ahead. But the city can take some small comfort from the example of western Jefferson County, which felt similar pain almost a decade earlier. Today in Oak Grove, streets once devastated beyond the point of recognition once again are lined with houses. A proud new high school stands in place of the wrecked one. The town's spirit, as ever, remains indomitable.

Life was never the same again for the survivors of the devastation of April 8, 1998, and it will never be the same again for today's survivors. But as it did in Oak Grove, the human spirit -- a spirit of hope and determination -- will live on in Enterprise. And as it did for Oak Grove, that spirit will ensure that Enterprise rises again.

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