When a small town’s name is plastered across the national news, it’s very rarely because anything good happened there. My hometown has had that dubious distinction four times during my life. The town was wrecked by Hurricane Eloise in 1975, then again by Opal, almost exactly 20 years later. In between, a media circus sprung up when a junk shop owner named Wayne O’Ferrell was investigated by the FBI for allegedly mailing a fatal bomb to a federal judge (that one turned out to be a wild-goose chase; the actual bomber wound up being from Minnesota. O’Ferrell wasn’t sharp enough to mail in his power bill two out of three months, much less build a mail bomb).

And now there’s this.

Tornadoes killed at least seven people in south Alabama today, including five at Enterprise High School, where students were trapped as a hallway roof collapsed.

One person died elsewhere in Enterprise, in Coffee County, and one man died in Wilcox County, Alabama Emergency Management Agency spokeswoman Yasamie Richardson said shortly after 8 p.m. At least 35 people from the Enterprise area were hospitalized with injuries.

Richardson said a higher number of deaths at the school was reported erroneously earlier in the evening because of “miscommunication at the site.” But she said search and rescue efforts were continuing in Enterprise on tonight, and the number of dead could rise.

The damage at Enterprise High School was horrific, as rescue personnel scrambled to find trapped students or staff after the tornado hit around 1 p.m.

Eleventh-grader Francisco Paulino said students had been sent to the halls for safety just before the winds struck.

“Most of the third hall was blown in by the wind,” said a shaken Paulino, whose arm was heavily bandaged following his storm injuries. Paulino said some students were trapped under debris and others were helping get them out.

That’s jarring stuff, especially when you can instantly picture the spot the witnesses are talking about. My homeroom class was on Third Hall; so was Mrs. Saliba’s Spanish classroom, and the history class where an ashen-faced teacher slumped against the doorway and said simply, “The Space Shuttle blew up” twenty-one years ago.


The death toll has been all over the map since late yesterday. It was reportedly as high as 15 in the high school alone, but this morning there are conflicting reports that fatalities were overstated. Then you read this:

Another witness claims to have gone into third hall and helped remove “two dead little girls. It’s very disturbing..They’re not moving, they’ve got a full morgue over there…six.. I don’t feel right, right now…It’s the first time I’ve ever seen something like this…the school coach, he had a couple of injuries – a deep gash in his knuckles and gash on his leg…We took him to the triage they have over there they set up behind the school…”

Late into the night excavation crews continued to work to try and lift a wall off the collapsed ceiling to see what they could find and unfortunately they found the bodies of three students.

Enterprise is a small town, but as a friend who’d never even visited the place emailed me last night, no town is big enough to shrug off dead children.

My parents still live in Enterprise, and I spent a very unpleasant hour yesterday trying vainly to reach them by phone. They’re fine, but the town is in terrible shape. A neighbor told my dad how he’d watched the enormous tornado pass over, with trees and huge chunks of destroyed homes swirling around inside the vortex, a real-life vision straight out of the Wizard Of Oz.


The devastation wasn’t limited to the high school. Here’s a picture from Dixie Drive, which I’ve probably driven down a thousand times. I don’t recognize a thing I see here:


I’ve got no wisdom to add here, no pithy remarks or snappy summations. To be perfectly frank, I didn’t like high school, and one of the best days of my life was the one when I realized I never had to live in Enterprise again. None of that lessens the shock of seeing the place in ruins.

UPDATE: Many more pictures here.


15 Responses to “Maelstrom”

  1. Bob Says:

    Fort Walton Beach here. We had some wind yesterday, and some rain, but nothing really out of the ordinary. Big-time bummer about Enterprise.

  2. Scott Says:

    I too went to Enterprise High School, but a few years after you, I think. Class of ’93! I had the same reaction on seeing the pictures. I thought to myself, “Wow! They sure have changed a lot since I’ve been there. I can’t even find the Band building.” Of course, I then realized that was because the Band building, along with just about all of the school on the side by the stadium, was just . . . gone.

    Odd, too, that you remember Ms. Saliba. She’s about the only teacher that I can really recall from High School.

    Dixie Drive?! Really? I had no idea it was that bad.

  3. John Reeves Says:

    I know exactly what they are going through. The November 1989 tornado up in Huntsville hit my house. My mother was in the house at the time, but wasn’t hurt. I also had several friends that were caught in the tornado, including one that died.

    Today is a very bad day in Enterprise. There won’t be many good ones for a while.

  4. Stu McHardy Says:

    I too am a graduate of EHS (’78) and played and attended commencement exercises in Bates Memorial Stadium, but like many military brats, did not, in pre-internet days, maintain close ties. Have tried to rectify that somewhat in recent years.

    I did visit in May, 2001, enjoying a delightful visit with Mr. Thad Morgan, former football coach, principal and commissioner (?). I think Mr Allsop had succeeded him as principal? I lived 2 blocks north of Hillcrest Baptist Church and will be looking for aerial photographs to see the damage that might have occurred in our old neighborhood. I have forgotten where Dixie Drive is….remind me?

    Things have certainly changed, and this tragedy will bring more change. Prayers, condolences and best wishes for a speedy comforting, healing and re-building in Enterprise.

  5. Stu McHardy Says:

    Oops, meant to comment that when I moved to Enterprise in ’76 I found a brief stint of labor cleaning up and helping to restore a greasy-spoon burger joint that was housed in an A-frame structure up near Westgate that had been destroyed in the 1975 storm. What a mess. Enterprise is aptly named, perhaps, having had to come back from previous setbacks.

    Go Wildcats/Enterprise

  6. Henry Says:

    I remembeer Enteprise from having served at nearby Ft. Rucker, 1959-1961. Nice little town–memorable for the statue of the boll weevil in the middle of the main street. Loved the story about how the boll weevil had wiped out a hard-scrabble cotton crop, which caused area farmers to begin raising peanuts so pervasively and profitably that the area became known as the “wire grass” (peanut vine) country. Thus, the statue. Never did develop a taste for the boiled peanuts sold at street corners, though. I was sad to have heard of the tornado’s destruction.

  7. JorgXMcKie Says:

    There really is no way to describe the destruction left by a big tornado. You have to see it (or pictures of a place you know well) to understand the sheer devastation. I almost bought a house in a suburb of Dayton 6 months before the Killer Tornado (32 dead) of ’73 (I think). You could see over almost all of the 600 houses in that suburb after the tornado went through while standing on the sidewalk.

    My sympathies are with the people of Enterprise, and with Will’s family and friends.

  8. Mythilt Says:

    Jorg, 1974. I was only 3 at the time and don’t remember it hitting Xenia, but do know what it has done to the psyche of the area, since I have lived most of my life in Beavercreek, which is next to Xenia.

  9. Will Allen Says:

    Simply awful. My thoughts are with your familiy and friends, Will.

    I’ve lived through mega-huricanes, mega-tornadoes, and pretty large earthquakes. The latter two are worse than the first kind of disaster, because of the lack of warning. I heard that the people of Enterprise got 29 minutes, which isn’t enough, obviously, and sometimes tornados are close to earthquakes in not giving any warning at all.

  10. Rich Vail Says:

    I grew up in Panama City/Lynn Haven, Fla, a hop-skip & a jump to the south (Panama City Mosley HS ’80). I’ve friends who live and grew up there…Mike and John Daniels, you OK? I’ll check back later…

  11. Steve in Houston Says:

    The Jerrel, TX tornado was like this. It was an F5 (I think they “measured” it at 300 mph). It went right over the town. Killed 27 people in a town of 131. There was a subdivision in the town that was literally blown away – 38 houses.

    In Texas, it was a huge deal. I can’t remember how big it was nationally.

    The worst of these storms seem to almost exclusively affect little towns. You don’t often hear about them ripping through big cities – Oklahoma City was one obvious exception.

    I suppose that’s due to relative sparse populations in Tornado Alley, but the South often gets hammered by these Spring cold fronts.

    Glad your folks are OK.

  12. Larry J Says:

    I grew up in Huntsville and will freely admit that tornados scare the hell out of me. It’s the lack of warning and the randomness that gets me. I’ve seen one house completely flattened with nothing but the foundation remaining while the house next door is hardly scratched.

    The worst night was April 3, 1974. On the same night that Xenia, Ohio was devastated, many tornados hit Huntsville and the surrounding area. I watched it on TV with the weather radar. It was like artillery spotting – one went to the north, the next to the south until it got dialed in, then one tornado after another went right into town. Overall, there were some 300-700 tornados across the country in one night.

    I have not been to Enterprise in over 30 years and don’t remember much about it other than the weavel statue. My heart goes out to the people there, especially to those families that lost children.

  13. Deacon Blues Says:

    I went to Dothan High back in the late 60’s early 70’s Enterprise was our arch-rival, especially on the ROTC Drill Team. I’ve been there many times. I wish only the best for the people of Enterprise. I agonize in their loss as I’ve lost loved ones in weather related tragedies.

  14. Ben Jarrell Says:

    Class of ’98 here. I also didn’t particularly like high school, or living in Enterprise for that matter- and the day I left for college was a happy day indeed. All the same, it is terrible to see what happened there.

  15. Chuck Gibson Says:

    I grew up in Enterprise (third generation)and graduated in ’68, which makes me an old fart compared to most of the other commenters here. I drove through Enterprise last year, which was the first time I’d been back, except for attending a funeral, in 25 years. It’ll always be my hometown, though, and it was a real wrench to see the destruction of all those familiar places, and to read familiar family names in the list of the dead and injured.

    Enterprise will get through it, and will go on. They are that kind of people.

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