JUNEAU — On April 27, a tornado tore through the town of Phil Campbell, Ala., killing 26 people and destroying one-third to one-half of the town.
It would certainly be understandable if such a devastating event put a screeching halt to plans to celebrate the city’s 100th anniversary with a hoedown and a gathering of people from around the world who share the town’s name.
Instead, the community of Phil Campbell decided to press on with the festivities in a modified form, partly to show the town has a future and partly to raise awareness of the city’s plight and ongoing need for assistance.
“Since the tornado, it’s not going to be as big as we had planned, because our town is just devastated,” said Ann Bragwell, city clerk for the burg located about 95 miles northwest of Birmingham. “It’s basically destroyed. Half of it, anyway.”
One of those namesakes is the pastor of Northern Light United Church, who attended the original gathering of Phil Campbells in 1995. That meeting attracted 22 Phils and a Phyllis Campbell, said organizer Phil Campbell from Brooklyn, N.Y.
Juneau’s Campbell said attendance by Phil Campbells at the city’s annual hoedown had dwindled since then. However, attempts to fill the town with Phils began well before the tornado, in hopes of celebrating the city’s centennial. Brooklyn’s Campbell said he anticipated about 50 folks with a similar signature to attend. A few decided not to come after the storms, he said, but just as many made travel plans after hearing the horrible news, including namesakes from not just the U.S., but also England, Scotland, Ireland, Australia and Greece.
“I called the (Best Western in nearby Russellville) and the woman mentioned there were a lot more people coming to Phil Campbell than any other year she knew,” Juneau’s Campbell said. “It’s attracted some attention. Not only Phil Campbells, but I think other people who want to come back for the 100th anniversary celebration and show their support, maybe people who grew up there and moved away.”
Campbell originally had not planned to attend. After all, he’d just been called by Northern Light’s congregation in September, 2010, and said he didn’t think it made good sense to take time off for something he said “was fun, but I’ve done it.”
“But after it became a relief effort, I think the congregation was really taken by the accident of their pastor’s name,” he said. “We had an opportunity to do more good than might otherwise be possible.”
Campbell’s congregation took up a special offering May 29 for the Alabama chapter of Habitat for Humanity, an effort Campbell said raised more than $2,000. He will take those funds with him when he attends the hoedown and convention June 17-18. Brooklyn’s Campbell said he’s trying to raise a total of $70,000 from others with a similar signature for Habitat by the time of the hoedown. He said that effort should be successful, but admits it’s “down to the wire.”
What awaits the Phil Campbells upon arrival in Alabama is less clear.
The vortex killed one of every 44 people in town, City Hall is unusable due to water damage and the town is looking at a one-year rebuilding project. Debris from the twister’s violent winds has been gathered into piles, which Bragwell said she hopes will be gone by hoedown time.
“It’s the most horrible thing I’ve ever seen,” she said. “I’ve seen tornadoes, but nothing like this.”
That backdrop will be juxtaposed with a scene straight out of any county fair. Music is scheduled to start June 17, with vendors selling food, crafts and knickknacks. The carnival conditions will continue the next day with a parade and festivities until nearly midnight.
This means the assembled Phil Campbells may combine crunching on corn dogs with clean-up and counseling duties.
“I think the people that are coming are flexible enough and adventurous enough that I’m sure that certain inconveniences are going to be accepted because half the town was destroyed,” Brooklyn’s Campbell said.
The city took its name from a man whose work crew was laying railroad track nearby. A businessman from the as-yet-unnamed settlement asked the man to run the track through the town and build a stop there, and offered to name the city after him in exchange.
“It’s quite something to be a part of this effort that has to do with the accident of my name,” Campbell, the man of God from Juneau said of aiding in the recovery from an act of God more than half a continent away.
So it is that a city named by happenstance is reaching out to those connected by coincidence to help it recover, physically and emotionally, from a fluke of weather that without reason or malice destroyed it.