MONTGOMEY, Ala. — Sam Heath's double-wide mobile home used to sit on a ridge overlooking wooded hills and hollows outside of Phil Campbell. It was a million dollar view for a former TV repairman who lived modestly on a disability check.
Today, the trees are flattened for a half mile in every direction. The mobile home is in a million pieces. Pieces of carpet and sheet metal are wrapped around the wrenched-off trunks of trees. Broken televisions and warped record albums litter the landscape.
"For a good 20 years, it's going to look bad," Heath said.
The 11-acre tract was part of who Sam Heath was and will always be. He grew up on the land and lived there as an adult. His 81-year-old mother, Doris Heath, lived in the family home on the same land.
Their world changed at 3:35 p.m. on April 27, 2011. An EF-5 tornado with 210 mph winds roared across the land. When it was gone, all that 56-year-old Sam Heath had left were the clothes on his back.
Heath, who's disabled by the autoimmune disease myasthenia gravis, recalled that he had been resting at his mobile home when the weather turned bad a year ago. He rushed to his mother's house and they huddled in a corner of her basement as the tornado hit.
"I could hear it take the roof off and the windows coming out. I was praying to Jesus to save us," he said.
When the storm passed, Heath walked outside to discover that the basement was all that remained of his mother's house and nothing was left of his house.
"If I'd been at my house, I wouldn't be here," he said.
Nearly everything that made the land home was gone — some of it a great distance. Heath's Medicaid card was found in Tennessee.
Heath's sister took their mother to stay with her in Georgia, and Heath camped out in a tent on the family land.
That's where he was when a volunteer from the United Church of Christ stopped by to see if he needed anything. Heath had no insurance on his mobile home, so the volunteer explained where he could apply for help from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Then people with the United Way and the Northwest Alabama Long Term Recovery Committee tracked him down.
With their help, he used $25,000 from FEMA to buy a vacant three-bedroom, one-bath house in nearby Bear Creek. United Way and the recovery committee helped get the house in shape, including installing new flooring and windows and acquiring a stove and refrigerator for the kitchen.
"If people hadn't stepped in, I'd still be trying to figure out what to do about a house," he said.
Heath's mother now lives in a mobile home parked in his yard.
Heath still goes to his old home place to walk around and reflect, but he hasn't had the physical or emotional strength to start cleaning up.
"I came up here one day and sat for three hours, and I said, 'I've got to accept this and move on.' But it ain't worked."
Despite his love of the family land, Heath has no plans to call it home again.
"I couldn't get up every day and relive it. I can't imagine what I'd do if another storm came," he said.