If you close your eyes for more than a minute or two, you’ll miss it.
Downtown Beauregard, Alabama, sits along a brief stretch of rural highway — Alabama 51 near Lee County Road 400. The town center features a unique Subway sandwich shop built inside a charming white home from the 1870s, a clinic and a drug store.
Locals sit down to eat breakfast and gossip at the town’s gas station that’s equipped with a full kitchen. Some hop into the feed and seed store nearby in the afternoon to hear what life was like decades ago and laugh at silly jokes.
Residents who live on the sometimes winding and occasional dirt roads outside of downtown will tell you they live in Beauregard. They’ll tell you almost everybody knows everybody — if not directly then through someone else.
They grew up hunting, fishing and riding 4-wheelers in rural east Alabama. Not all of them. But some of them.
About five miles from the community’s busiest stretch of road sits the remnants of chaos,sorted and piled to be hauled away. Almost a month ago, a series of tornadoes ripped through tiny Beauregard, cutting a path. One part of town is undisturbed. The other is completely devastated.
Twenty-three people are dead. The youngest victim was 6, and the oldest was almost 90.
They are remembered by 22 white crosses sitting in front of nearby Providence Baptist Church — as of last week one family removed one of the crosses. The church became a hub for supplies — a place of salvation for those without — and a place of mourning at the base of those handmade white memorial crosses.
But what happens when most cameras are turned off and the national media leaves this small Alabama community behind? The tornadoes have come and gone, but what about the people left behind in the place they call home?
As Beauregard works to pick up the pieces — salvaging what they can or opening homes to neighbors who lost everything — residents are trying to navigate their new normal. Some are coming to grips with the fact that things will never be like it was again.
Beauregard: ‘God’s country’
Beauregard operates within an interesting space in Lee County. It sits near Auburn and Opelika, its larger neighbors, but residents reject the bedroom community label it is sometimes given by outsiders.
“It was just a better place to raise a family than Memphis or Birmingham or Atlanta or Columbus,” said Mike Holden, chief of the Beauregard Volunteer Fire Department. “It’s a slower pace. It’s more of a family community.
“You’re always welcome to move to God’s country.”
The exact population of Beauregard is unclear. U.S. Census data lumps population counts from the tiny Alabama community with another nearby community. Estimates from 2018 data indicate that about 10,800 people live in the Beauregard-Marvyn portions of Lee County.
Much of the community where Holden has lived for the past 23 years is considered rural — Angus bulls and timber land dot the area. There has been some growth. Larger subdivisions are being developed, and some smaller Lee County communities like Salem or Mitchell Crossroads often claim Beauregard as home. And no matter which way travelers come in, they’ll almost always end up on Alabama 51.
Behind Beauregard High School is the youth athletics complex where on a given evening or weekend you might find half of the town watching games — especially during baseball season, Holden added.
Most people in town know each other or are connected in some way, said Bailey Jones, a 20-year-old who grew up in Beauregard and works at the Lee County Feed and Seed, about a mile south of the fire department.
Before Jones could drive, he said he was out riding 4-wheelers, and after he started driving, he was riding dirt roads throughout town. He took the job at the feed and seed his junior year of high school to make insurance payments on a 1997 Chevy S-10.
The outdoor activity of choice differs depending upon the season. In the summers, he’d fish. In the winters, he’d be hunting in the woods.
“It’s the same as any classic small town,” he said. “A lot of things pass through here.”
Things changed in early March as friends, family and loved ones were ripped away. The small Alabama community unified in the fallout, and the bonds that formed in the weeks that followed brought them together — perhaps closer than ever.
Where were you when the storm hit?
A string of tornadoes passed through Alabama and parts of the southeast March 3. Six tornadoes cut through the southern and southeastern portions of central Alabama. Two passed through Beauregard and the first of those was the most powerful. Thirty-four others touched down in areas of Georgia, Florida and South Carolina, reports the National Weather Service’s Birmingham office.
That day, Holden, left home to visit his daughter. The sky was clear then.
Within 30 minutes, he was getting notifications on his phone about incoming storms. Holden talked with his team and they worked to get a plan in place. The place the fire department decided to set up to handle the storm aftermath was about 2 miles away from the storm’s eventual direct path.
Then, the sirens went off.
About three minutes later, the first tornado hit.
Holden and his team were able to respond five minutes after the first and strongest tornado hit. But a second tornado, on a path nearly a quarter to a half a mile south of the first, would tear through soon after.
“That was scary for a lot of our guys to have that second one come in so close,” Holden said. “I was loading patients into department vehicles because the ambulances couldn’t get to them … when EMA came on the radio and said, ‘Y’all need to leave now.’”
Residents in the area weren’t aware of the second storm headed their way. The rain stopped, and they were outside roaming around looking at the damage. One nearby home remained standing. Holden ordered people to go inside.
“They said ‘This isn’t our house,” Holden recalled. “I said: ‘I don’t care. Kick the door in. Get in the house.’”
Holden then left with his patients.
“We’ve never experienced anything of this magnitude in this area in my 20 years as fire chief,” Holden said. “I have seen destruction before but not as it happened.”
Bailey Jones never crossed the paths of the storms. He was in Opelika with cousins helping his grandfather move furniture. He hunkered down, watched the news and followed the path of the storm. It didn’t register how close the storms were to loved ones until the second one had already passed.
As he drove back to Beauregard about 20 minutes after the second tornado came through, he saw the ambulances pass him, heading out of town.
His parents’ home was about a mile and a half away from the tornadoes’ paths. The home wasn’t damaged. His father, a reserve deputy with the Lee County Sheriff’s Office, was already out on call.
Jones started making phone calls to a friend who lived near Lee County Road 38 — one of the most devastated areas of the community. He soon realized he couldn’t get to him.
“That’s probably when it hit me the most,” he said. “It’s right around the corner, and I couldn’t get up there and help anybody because they weren’t going to let anybody through.”
Bailey Jones’ friend was unharmed in the tornado — his roof was damaged and a tree fell on the back of his truck. But he would soon learn that a regular at the feed and seed shop, 89-year-old Jimmy Lee Jones, died in the storm. Bailey Jones and Jimmy Lee Jones were not related.
Jimmy Lee Jones would stay in the feed and seed for hours, talking about the past and his childhood and making others laugh.
“He was probably the only one I’ve ever sat down and listened to talk about older stuff like that,” Bailey Jones said.
The last time Bailey Jones talked to his older friend, Jimmy Lee Jones, he had just come back from Birmingham. He was sick with something, Bailey Jones said.
“That man (Jimmy Lee Jones) was always concerned about paying his bill off,” Bailey Jones recalled. “He said: ‘If I die, I’m going to have my kids come in here and pay that for you.’”
Holden interacted with many of the storms’ victims during his nearly 20 years as fire chief.
But he lost a close friend in the storms — Marshall “Lynn” Grimes. The pair rode motorcycles together, and Grimes was the local president of a Christian motorcycle group. Riders from all over Georgia and Alabama came to Grimes’ funeral on their motorcycles to pay their respects.
Holden could not attend Grimes’ services.
“I was tied up at the command post, and they wouldn’t let me go,” Holden said.
Tiffany Simmons and her husband were not in the storm’s path, but a pharmacy technician working at the store they own, Beauregard Drugs, lost everything. The tech lived with the couple for a week after the storms before moving into a loaned home.
“They had to tear apart their home. The home they lived in and brought their kids home in,” Simmons said. “She said that was terrible. The storm had already pretty much torn it apart but then to finish it off — to then close that official chapter. It’s hard.”
What’s next? ‘Make Beauregard Great Again’
You go through the heartache. You go through the sad. Then comes the frustration and then you’re mad. But in a small town where everyone is connected, the next step is recovery.
That’s how Simmons describes the collective emotions of those in Beauregard who were affected by the storm. Outside her and her husband’s drug store, ‘Thank You, President Trump’ is one of several messages that scrolls across an electronic ticker sign.
“The folks are tight. They are faith-based,” she said. “It was the blood of Christ that saved everybody. He knew this before we did. As easy as that is to say and as hard as that is to swallow, they know it. They’re going to be okay, but it’s just going to take a long time.”
Members of the community are doing what they can to help their neighbors.
The drug store established a relief fund that covers affected residents’ copay for medication. Some gave a little extra money to the store when picking up their own medicine. Others have written checks. Simmons estimated they had between $1,500 to $2,000.
“We can see their address. We know what was hit, and you can tell. There’s a look on your face when they walk in. We know something bad has happened,” she said.
Most of the people cry and ask for hugs when they learn they don’t have to pay.
“It might be small. It might be minor. But that’s something we can do,” she said.
Simmons and her husband are also selling “Make Beauregard Great Again” t-shirts to raise additional funds for victims — a play on Trump’s popular campaign slogan.
“Regardless of you being a Democrat or a Republican or black or white or purple or green, a loss is a loss,” she said. “It’s devastating.”
The Lee County Feed and Seed is giving food and other supplies, donated by community members, to animal owners affected by the storm. If you need something that hasn’t been donated, there’s a fund to cover the costs for pet owners, said Bailey Jones, who works there.
“We’re just trying to do our part here to help everybody,” he said.
Bailey Jones estimates they’ve given away one ton of horse feed, chicken feed, goat feed, horse feed, dog feed and cat feed combined. The feed and seed is also offering free pet tags and collars.
“Whatever they need it for,” he said. “We’ll give it.”
Volunteers from across the nation were in Beauregard last week as clean-up efforts continue. Groups such as Samaritan’s Purse and Eight Days of Hope had large numbers of volunteers in the area. Some volunteers, unaffiliated with any group, also drove to Alabama to help.
There are a few who have attempted to profit off the chaos. Some instances of looting were reported in the early days after the storm. Lee County Sheriff Jay Jones and other officials held a press conference recently where he warned the public about potential clean-up related scams.
Lee County authorities were still patrolling some of the more damaged areas to keep looters out in late March. Jones told the Ledger-Enquirer in a previous interview everyone who comes and goes was being asked to identify themselves.
The policy, Sheriff Jones said, has been mostly successful. However, it has caused some tension. Charles Steven Griffin, the father of 6-year-old A.J. Hernandez who was killed in the storm, was arrested while trying to get back to his home off Alabama 51 at Lee County Road 38.
Two disaster recovery centers in Lee County closed March 30. However, residents can still get help from FEMA, the state and the United States Small Business Administration.
Homeowners and renters can apply for FEMA disaster assistance online at DisasterAssistance.gov or by calling 800-621-3362.
But many things won’t return to the way that they were, some say, even after assistance is dispersed and new homes are built.
“I don’t know if there is ever going to be another getting back to normal for a lot of those people,” Bailey Jones said, while pacing the floor of the feed and seed store. “Those people that were affected … there won’t be no getting back to normal.”
Ledger-Enquirer reporter Tim Chitwood contributed to this story.