article written by: Jesse Chambers
Pleasant Grove was one of the Jefferson County communities hit hardest by the tornadoes that ripped through the state in April 2011, with 13 people killed.
The city also suffered extensive property damage.
Even the cold, hard numbers detailing this damage have the power to shock, nearly two years after the storm.
In this West Jefferson community, 358 homes were totally destroyed, 254 suffered major damage and 397 suffered minor damage, according to numbers supplied in January by Doug Hyche, the city's building inspector.
And the city's recovery, both physically and psychologically, continues.
At virtually every meeting, the Mayor and City Council must deal with some storm-related business, such as funding for a new storm shelter or declaring the severely damaged Northside Park obsolete.
But the city is ready to start a new chapter, according to Mayor Jerry Brasseale.
"We're moving forward," he said this week. "We're putting the storm behind us."
Of course, it is not easy to move past such a shattering event, especially when the evidence of storm damage, such as scores of vacant lots, is still all around, but it is essential nonetheless.
"Anybody that was in the storm, it was probably one of the largest nightmares they've ever witnessed or been involved with," according to the Mayor. "You see it every day, but you have to continue to move forward."
Brasseale told AL.com this week about the city's continuing efforts to recover, about what the experience of the storm was like for him, and about his pride in what he calls the strength, courage and unselfishness of the people of the close-knit community of Pleasant Grove -- qualities that he said the storm brought into sharper relief.
One of Brasseale's primary goals is to see as many homes rebuilt in Pleasant Grove as possible, with the hope that some of the residents who left the city will come back.
"A lot of them have moved out of the community, but we've had several who have moved back inside the community," he said. "That's what we want to see -- people coming back."
In January, Hyche reported to the City Council that of the 358 homes that were destroyed, 109 new home permits had been issued and all but eight of those homes had been built.
He also said that most of the houses with major damage had been repaired, and residents had moved back in.
In addition, repairs had been completed on most of the houses with minor damage.
However, to fully rebuild the city is a daunting task, according to Brasseale.
"We will end up losing over 200 homes that we would love to see the people rebuild, but we know that won't happen, so we have to do everything possible to get our city back in the shape it was in before the storm hit and then encourage people to come back," he said.
Of course, recovery has more than a physical or structural dimension. There are emotional and psychological aspects, and Brasseale feels strongly that the people of his city are a resilient lot.
"As you go out through the community, the main thing that I see from (the storm) is it shows you the courage, the strength of our people," he said. "Never were our people any closer and ready to help out. They put everything, bad feelings or whatever, behind them, and folks were willing to help out. It showed the strength of our churches out here, police and fire. Sometimes, something traumatic as that was will bring out the good that you sort of take for granted."
Brasseale said that people still talk and swap stories about the storm, stories that have the capacity to surprise him.
"Every week, folks will pull me over to the side and tell me stuff that I didn't realize took place, because there was so much that took place," he said.
And the Mayor has his own indelible memories of April 27, 2011.
"The thing that really surprised me, when I was watching this on TV before the power went out, was the strength that came from this tornado," he said. "When I watched this thing come through Tuscaloosa, I knew that if it hit Pleasant Grove, it was going to be bad, and my fears were realized that night. I had never seen anything like it."
Brasseale will also never forget finally making his way back to city hall the night of the storm. He saw that the area around city hall and the fire station was being used to bring in storm victims for emergency medical care.
"I was amazed at what was going on here," he said. "Ambulances in and out. People bringing (victims) on stretchers, on boards, on doors. It was amazing, and I was so proud of everybody that was there, the way they were carrying on with the duties they had to perform."
Brasseale was elected mayor in 2000 and was well into his third term at the time of the storm, but he found this to be an entirely new challenge. "I had never before been put in a spot like this," he said.
One challenge was dealing with the enormous amount of press attention the storm, and Pleasant Grove, received. "It was every news channel, and it wasn't just local," he said. "It was all over. And you want to do the best you can. You want to stay positive."
One of Brasseale's initial tests in that regard came the first night of the event when he and Director of Public Safety Robert Knight had to answer questions from representatives of several TV news channels and other outlets.
"I will never forget," he said. "And I told the Chief the other day, ''You know, we didn't do that bad for our first interview.' But you know, that's a pretty good strain. Everybody wants you right then. It is a tremendous strain on you, but you just shoulder it and keep on going. You try to make yourself as visible as you can and let your people know that you care and that you are concerned and that you are doing the best you can to move forward with what we had at the time."
When asked if he had any advice for other public officials who might face a similar crisis, Brasseale said that they should do everything they can to be ready before it happens.
"You're never completely prepared, but there are so many positive things you can do... to get prepared if and when it does come," he said.
Since the storm, Brasseale said that he and several City Council members have attended conferences on storm safety and learned some of the simple things you can do to be prepared.
"A simple thing is wearing helmets, especially your children," he said. "So many head injuries could have been avoided just by the simple step of wearing some kind of helmet."
He cited the example of the churches in Pleasant Grove where people formed chainsaw crews -- crews that are still training to be ready for the next such event.
"The only thing I hope people have learned from this is to be prepared," Brasseale urged. "Be ready today, because there is no guarantee of tomorrow. Prepare yourself for today, because it can happen. You may never think it can happen, but we witnessed it."
A Pleasant Grove native, Brasseale seems genuinely moved by the courage and sacrifices of his constituents in the wake of the storm.
However, he said that he was not necessarily surprised that they responded that way.
"I've been here my whole life, and I know our people," he said. "I knew that anything possible they would carry it through. Like I say, folks didn't run from this. They ran right into the mouth of it."
The Mayor also praised the support that the city received from other cities and outside agencies. "It was just unreal the response the City of Pleasant Grove got from these people," he said.
Brasseale was asked if anything good came out of this horrific event.
"At the end of the first year, after we had our memorial service, I believe it's helped our community grow closer," he said. "Yes, the storm was the talk, and still is the talk, but it has brought our people closer."