Veterinary practice digs out from Alabama twister

Animals unharmed; massive cleanup ensues

January 24, 2012 (published)
By Jennifer Fiala; Phyllis DeGioia

Photo courtesy of Dr. John Wallace
One of three tornados that touched down on Monday in Alabama struck Dr. John Wallace's small animal practice in Center Point, a suburb of Birmingham. The practice was closed at the time, and all the animals boarded inside survived.
"We didn't have any animals killed or escaped, that's the main thing."

It's the first sentence Dr. John Wallace utters when asked to convey the impact that an EF3-strength tornado had on his veterinary practice in Center Point, Ala., a suburb north of Birmingham. The twister was one of three that tore through the state during the dark morning hours Monday, causing two fatalities and hundreds of injuries.

Wallace's words are spoken with an air of relief. The practice was closed when the tornado hit, so no one was inside apart from 35 or so dogs, cats and rabbits. If the tornado had struck during working hours, the veterinarian who's owned Parkside Animal Clinic for 34 years doubts anyone would have survived. 

"Things could have been much worse," he said. For some, the storm conjures memories of April 27, when extremely large and violent tornadoes ravaged the South, killing more than 248 in Alabama alone and destroying cities such as Tuscaloosa. 

"There are towns that are pretty much gone from April, and things were just getting back up and running," said Dr. Charles Franz, executive director of the Alabama Veterinary Medical Association (ALVMA). "Veterinarians here have been taking a huge hit because their clients have been devastated."

When asked, Wallace rattles off a list of tangible damages — torn roof, water damage, debris — but quickly rallies with expressions of gratitude for his staff and area colleagues who've worked long hours dispersing his boarded animals, all uninjured by the storm, as well as the medications and equipment left in his practice. 

"Part of the roof might have blown off, but the building is still standing," Wallace said. "I'm fortunate and grateful. The building next to us was an oil change auto repair shop, and it is totally gone."

Dr. Bill Allen, ALVMA president-elect, lives near Birmingham and helped out in Wallace's practice, post devastation. "Shrapnel is throughout the clinic. Nobody would be alive if they'd been in the lobby," he said. 

Allen noted that the tornado was so fierce, it lifted a roof off the nearby Wells Fargo bank, dropping it inside the building. Most of the tin roof covering a quarter-mile-long strip mall was blown off and roughly 300 area homes were destroyed. As for the auto repair shop Wallace speaks of, Allen characterizes its condition as "amazing."

"The upper structure is totally gone. Those heavy metal lifts were twisted around and half-a-dozen cars in it are buried," he said. 

Since Monday morning, Allen has attempted to contact every veterinary practice he knows of in the area. So far, all but Wallace's clinic reportedly are unscathed, apart from the two clinics that Allen has yet to connect with. The problem stems from downed phone and power lines. Alabama Power, a local electric company, reported to local news agencies that more than 56,000 businesses and homes lost power when storms swept across the central part of the state.

Franz, head of the ALVMA, hasn't heard from any impacted clinics except for Wallace's practice, either.

The idea of tornadoes striking midwinter, he said, has him rattled. "This tornado was nothing compared to what hit in April, but I've lived here all my life," he said, "and I can't remember ever having tornadoes in January." 



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