It's late afternoon in the first days of April, and cool air circulates throughout Jeff and Stacey McCormick's living room.
The modest home sits off a peaceful gravel road on a clear sunny day in Phil Campbell, and 5-year-old blond-haired, blue-eyed Garrett LeClere is ready to play.
"You can't go play just yet," Jeff McCormick, Garrett's legal guardian, says with a hint of a smile in his voice.
Garrett epitomizes the "new normal" for residents who survived the deadly tornadoes that ripped a wide path through north Alabama on the afternoon of April 27, 2011. One year hasn't been enough time to completely adjust from the 65 lives the tornadoes took with it or to completely rebuild all that it destroyed.
But, like Garrett, residents are trying.
On this day, one year later, Garrett grins widely, his eyes crinkling at the corners, as he stands in the living room.
Behind him, on the mantle, is a photo of his mother and father, Amy and Jay LeClere. To the right of the frame sits a ring box containing Amy LeClere's wedding band and a carefully-folded letter written by her best friend. On the other side of the photograph, a small silver urn holds a handful of Jay LeClure's ashes.
His body was too mangled to bury in a casket, though his older children said he would've preferred to be cremated, anyway.
Garrett doesn't stop smiling when he crawls onto Jeff McCormick's lap to talk about his parents, both of whom died in the tornado that also took their home.
Though young, he speaks candidly about the injuries he sustained when he was thrown more than 100 yards from the bathroom where his father sent him to take refuge.
"My dad told me to get in the bathroom, and I took my Pillow Pet," Garrett said. "Then I flew up out of the bathroom and fell down."
When he landed on a nearby basketball court, both arms were broken, and his skull was fractured at the base. He spent nine days in the UAB Intensive Care Unit, while his 16-year-old sister Marisa, who tried to shield him in the bathtub, spent 13 days in Russellville Hospital.
Jeff McCormick works with Blue Springs Volunteer Fire Department, and he said when he heard the greater part of Phil Campbell had been destroyed, he immediately set out to find Amy, Jay and Garrett LeClere, and his daughter Marisa, who was born during his marriage to Amy. She was visiting the LeClere house that day.
When McCormick reached the area where the LeClere's house had stood, he said he searched for awhile before a woman noticed his firefighter uniform and called him over to check on a wounded girl.
"It was my daughter Marisa," he said. "She was talking and alert, but she was also crying and hurting. I felt relieved (she was alive). My question to her was, ‘Where's your mother, Jay and Garrett?' "
Marisa, who had a broken collar bone, a ruptured spleen, a collapsed lung and a large gash on her back, didn't have an answer.
Soon after, McCormick learned that a boy fitting Garrett's description was injured and transported to the hospital, though it appeared his injuries were not life threatening.
"I assumed it was Garrett and that he would be OK," McCormick said. "There were no other little boys in that area who fit that description.
"At that point the search went from a ‘me' to a ‘we,' and we searched for survivors for about another hour, then I went to the triage center and found Marisa."
It was the afternoon of April 28 before Jay and Amy LeClere's bodies were located and positively identified in the makeshift morgue set up behind the Phil Campbell Rescue Squad building.
On a list of the deceased, next to a body bag number, someone had simply written, "Amy?"
McCormick said he was able to look at the body to make a positive identification on Amy, but he was only able to confirm a specific tattoo on Jay's right arm. He was not allowed to view the body.
"We found out ... Garrett and his mother were found only a few feet apart," McCormick said. "His dad was about 100 yards away ... They found a picture of Garrett next to him."
At that point, Jeff and Stacey McCormick said, there was no question about who would take care of Garrett.
"I lost it," Stacey McCormick said of hearing about the LeCleres' deaths. "My heart just broke so much for the children.
"Garrett (often) came over, and I grew to love him. I knew taking him in was the best thing to do."
When it came time to tell Garrett about his parents, though, McCormick said he felt it was necessary for Marisa to be present, since she was "his rock."
"(Marisa) would've been the only one who would've been able to help him," McCormick said. "If he broke out screaming, there would be nothing I could do. (Garrett) told us he remembered that they were in the bathroom ..."
"And the wall broke," Garrett interjects, eyebrows raised and eyes wide with the memory.
He is now seated on the couch next to J.J. McCormick, his half-brother.
J.J. reaches out in a tender move, much older and wiser than his 14 years, and draws Garrett closer, wrapping his arm around the little boy's shoulder and leaning over to give him a kiss on the top of his head. Garrett snuggles in comfortably.
Stacey McCormick picks up where Garrett left off in his story, saying he'd told them he remembered flying up in the bathtub and the rain and wind and falling down and being hurt.
Jeff McCormick said he used Garrett's recollections to talk about Jay and Amy.
"I said, ‘Marisa fell down, too, and she got hurt,' " McCormick said. "And I said, ‘And your mom and dad fell down,' and (Garrett) just said, ‘I know.'
"I was crying and really having a hard time, and I said, ‘Well, they didn't make it. They died.' "
In the hospital that day, a single tear rolled down Garrett's face. "I know," he replied. "Jesus told me."
Jeff McCormick said he wasn't prepared for Garrett's response.
"I had a bunch of things I was going to say to help him feel better, but Garrett needed no comforting," he said.
Now, Garrett says, he likes to remember the good times with his parents, who he says are happy and in a better place.
Garrett happily talks about his parents taking him to Chuck-E-Cheese for his birthday April 21. He loved buying prizes with tickets, and as another present, he got the trampoline he'd begged for.
"That was one of the first things we bought when you came here, wasn't it?" Jeff McCormick asks Garrett, who only got to enjoy the trampoline for six days before it was destroyed in the storm.
Garrett is content with pointing out the photo of his mother and father on the mantle, which J.J. says was the one used at their joint funeral.
Garrett stands on his tiptoes to reach the ring box. He takes out the small, golden wedding band, turning it this way and that so that it flashes in the light.
He takes down the urn containing his father's ashes, looking intently at its design.
He says he likes to hold the mementos, because, in a way, they make his parents seem near.
"I like looking at this stuff, because they're my family," he says. "My dad turned into ashes. (When I hold the urn) I think about when he died."
There are people all across the state, who, like Garrett, are adjusting to the aftermath of that deadly day last spring, which claimed the lives of at least 309 people across Alabama and Mississippi.
In Marion, Franklin and Lawrence counties combined, 65 people lost their lives as a result of the storm — 24 in Marion, 14 in Lawrence and 27 in Franklin.
In Alabama, including Tuscaloosa, Rainsville and Sylvania, more than 240 Alabamians died. Daily, though, more names are added to the list — some people's injuries didn't take their lives until months after the storms.
April 27, 2011, set two U.S. records: one for the most tornadoes in a 24-hour period with estimates of 211 confirmed individual twisters, and another for more than 600 tornadoes within the month, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association.
Comparatively, the second highest single-day outbreak saw 148 tornadoes in April 1974, which was also the second most active month for tornadoes, with 267 confirmed.
In Hackleburg, the National Weather Service estimates that on April 27, between the approximate start time of 3:08 p.m. and the approximate end time of 3:28 p.m., wind speeds reached as high as 210 miles per hour.
But with one look at the town even a year later, that estimate may seem low.
Hackleburg not only lost the Wrangler plant, a major source of tax revenue, it also lost its Police Department and volunteer fire department — none of which have since been rebuilt because of a lack of funds and a lot of red tape, officials said.
Both Phil Campbell and Hackleburg lost schools, and high school students in both towns currently attend classes in portable classrooms.
Emergency Management Agency statistics show there were at least 998 Marion County structures impacted by the storm and at least 338 structures impacted in Franklin County, though the Franklin estimate does not include damaged or destroyed homes.
Because the tornado ripped through businesses in both counties, taking with it jobs and income, many people have been forced to move away. In some cases, people moved to a new state in an entirely different region of the country. Others have moved to nearby towns.
While people who lost homes, jobs and family members continue to heal from both physical and deep emotional wounds, some first responders say they, too, have been forever changed.
Gina Jones, a Pleasant Bay emergency medical technician, said she'll always remember the feeling of the air right before the tornado struck.
"It was just a heaviness on you," she said. "I will never forget that pressure."
She said the emergency medical service community as a whole was dealt a blow when they learned that one of their own died in the storm.
Vickie McKee, 47, died in her Hackleburg home.
"When we found out she and her niece hadn't made it through, it put a whole new personal spin on it," Jones said.
Now, when clouds get dark, she said, it's sometimes difficult to remain calm.
"I don't feel safe in the basement anymore, and I always did before," she said. "April 27 won't feel like any other day to any of us (anymore)."
Groups such as the Northwest Alabama Long Term Recovery Committee and the statewide Tornado Recovery Action Council — or TRAC, whose members were hand-picked by Gov. Robert Bentley — have also taken steps in hopes of preventing future deaths in the event of another tornado.
For example, in January, shortly after a tornado struck Birmingham, TRAC released a set of recommendations for preparing for future disasters. The recommendation were composed using suggestions from members of devastated communities.
Hackleburg Police Chief Kenny Hallmark said at a local level, law enforcement agencies have become more prepared, as well, purchasing more emergency equipment and training officers in responding to disasters.
"We're writing a policy now for disaster preparedness," Hallmark said earlier this month. "We've gotten some grants to help us get equipment ... like an enclosed trailer, ATVs, generators with light towers to work scenes and projectors to monitor the weather on a large scale.
"Seeing the town destroyed has been hard, but now we're able to build it back to accommodate today's needs."
Hannah Mask can be reached at 256-740-5728 or hannah.mask@TimesDaily.com.
Number of Alabama deaths: 243
Marion County deaths: 24
Marion County injured: Approximately 100
Franklin County deaths: 27
Franklin County injured: Approximately 150
Lawrence County deaths: 14
Lawrence County injured: Estimates unknown
Total families impacted: *1,920
Structures impacted: *1,336 (number does not reflect homes destroyed in Franklin County)
Estimated cost of repair: *$3,538,509
Estimated remaining needs: *$1,071,844
*includes estimates from both Franklin and Marion counties
Sources: Northwest Alabama Long Term Recovery, Emergency Management Agency, National Weather Service and Emergency Medical Technicians
What: Monument for Phil Campbell victims of April 27
When: Saturday, April 28, 10 a.m.
Where: The park on Main Street, next to the Chat ‘N' Chew
What: Monument for Hackleburg victims of April 27
When: Saturday, April 28, 11 a.m.
Where: Highway 43, right after the Panther Mart