An Alabama metals producer that
was destroyed by a tornado in April 2011 was back up and
running within a year of the devastating storm.
Independence Tube Corp.s
Decatur, Ala., facility was ground zero for a powerful tornado
that struck April 27, 2011. That afternoon, 55 tornadoes
skipped across northern Alabama, part of a deadly storm system
that spawned 358 tornadoes and caused 348 deaths over four
days. The Decatur plant, which began producing squares,
rectangles and rounds in 2006 and completed a
125,000-square-foot expansion in 2010, was leveled; the
435,000-square-foot mill was a total loss.
My first thought was,
Thank God nobody was hurt, said Independence
Tube president Rick Werner, who at the time was in Orlando,
Fla. He got in his car and drove all night to Alabama. We
looked at it the first time that next morning. There was just
shock and awe at the amount of devastation.
About 25 employees and two truck
drivers were in the building when the tornado, packing winds of
more than 200 mph, hit just after 4 p.m. Employees had been
following the track of the storm, and all but one truck driver
managed to find shelter in cement-block rooms in the interior
of the mill building. That driver, who was preparing to accept
a load of tubing, rode out the storm in the cab of his
Meteorologists later determined
that the storm that hit Independence Tube had cut a swath
1¼ miles wide and more than 100 miles long.
Other metal producers also
sustained damage that day. Birmingham Bronze & Metals Co.
lost its 20,000-square-foot warehouse and 2,000-square-foot
office to the storm, and American Cast Iron Pipe Co. in
Birmingham suffered property damage. Producers across the
region were without power for weeks after the storm system
devastated power provider Tennessee Valley Authoritys
backbone high-voltage transmission system in Alabama,
Mississippi and Tennessee.
In the eerie silence following
the tornado, employees from steelmaker Nucor Corp.s mill
next door rushed over to help Independence Tube employees dig
out from the destroyed plant. High-voltage transmission wires
were down all over the property, and Nucor workers cleared a
path so employees could escape. Nucor had people on site
within minutes, Werner said. They were just
At the same time Werner was
driving to Decatur, engineers from Independence Tubes
Chicago and Marseilles, Ill., facilities also were on the road
to Alabama. They met Werner to survey the damage and determine
a plan of action.
The task ahead seemed immense.
Approximately 385,000 square feet of the facilityÑabout
88 percentÑhad to be replaced. Much of the mill was
metal, wood and plastic rubble, the buildings outside
panels were shredded, five overhead cranes had been destroyed,
eight additional cranes were damaged, several 12.75-inch by
60-foot pilings weighing 2,000 pounds apiece had been picked up
and hurled up to 300 feet from the outdoor storage yard and,
incredibly, a rail spur serving the facility was moved four
feet from its original location.
Work had to be found for the
nearly 70 employees. Fortunately, most of the tooling
equipment, although waterlogged from the driving rain that
accompanied the tornado, was salvageable. We started
rebuilding the next day, said John Tassone, Independence
Tubes marketing manager.
Reconstruction of the Decatur
mill began within 18 hours of the tornado. Werner and engineers
supervised the transfer of about 8,000 bundles of finished tube
that had been stored under a roof that was no longer there.
Independence Tube leased warehouse space at nearby Wolverine
Tube Inc., which had not been damaged. A number of Independence
Tubes employees spent the next several months at the
Wolverine Tube facility, cleaning those 8,000 bundles by
In the first days following the
tornado, Werner and Independence Tube had two critical
decisions to make: how to dispose of the tons of rubble on the
site, and whether to rebuild in Decatur.
The problem of how to dispose of
debris was solved quickly. Nucor told Werner that it would
recycle all of the metal scrap in the companys melt
Independence Tube was quickly
wooed by other southeastern states that offered incentives to
move the facility. Independence Tube had built the Decatur
facility in 2006 with the assistance of a 10-year Alabama state
tax abatement, and Alabama had offered additional tax
abatements when Independence Tube expanded the facility in
2009-10. The tax abatements offered sales and use tax savings
during construction, but officials were ambivalent about
extending the incentives for a reconstruction effort.
The Alabama legislative session
was winding down in the days following the devastating
tornadoes, but state Sen. Arthur Orr pushed through legislation
to extend the states property tax abatement for two years
for companies that were rebuilding after the storms. The
Alabama legislature passed Orrs bill and sent it to Gov.
Robert J. Bentley, who promptly signed it.
With the tax abatement
legislation in place, Independence Tube signed a contract with
Fite Building Co. of Decatur, which had built the facility only
five years earlier. Independence Tube called the rebuilding
effort the Phoenix Project after the mythical bird
and its ability to arise from the ashes.
Contractors and subcontractors
swarmed over the Decatur site and began the nearly yearlong
process of rebuilding an entirely new facility. During
construction, they used 1,350 tons of steel to rebuild 385,000
square feet of warehouse space. Contractors also replaced
482,000 square feet of roofing and 167,400 square feet of
Independence Tube took pride in
the fact that no one was laid off, Werner said. During the 11
months the plant was being rebuilt, Independence Tube sent
teams of Decatur employees to work in the companys
facilities in Chicago and Marseilles. The company paid for
hotel rooms for the Alabama employees and paid for them to
return to Decatur every two weeks. By the time the Decatur mill
was up and running, more than 40 of the facilitys 75
workers had spent time in Illinois.
Werner said that moving the
Alabama employees to the companys Illinois plants
accomplished two objectives: Independence Tube was able to
retain quality, veteran employees by offering them work up
north, and the company was able to fill orders from Decatur at
its two Illinois facilities.
All but two of the sizes
that Decatur made were made by our other plants, Tassone
said. We purchased additional tooling for Marseilles in
June 2011 that allowed us to make those two sizes. There really
wasnt much of a hiccup in customer service.
The Marseilles facility was
producing round sizes previously made only in Decatur just
eight weeks after the tornado, and Independence Tube was able
to fulfill 99 percent of its orders while the Decatur plant was
By fall 2011, rebuilding was in
full swing. More than 34 local contractors were involved in the
project, and more than 300 people were employed on the job
site. By the time it was finished, some 168,000 contractor
man-hours had been used to rebuild the plant, with resources
coming from six different countries. The actual structure was
completed on Nov. 30, 2011, and the roof was completed about
three weeks later. The contractors erected three 90-foot free
spans to allow for easy transfer of material to outside
Independence Tube used the
opportunity to tweak the product line at the Decatur plant.
During the 2009-10 expansion, the company had increased
production to offer 14-inch (outside diameter) rounds. The 2011
rebuilding allowed the company to add production of 16-inch
On April 27, 2012, Independence
Tube marked the one-year anniversary of the tornado with a gala
open house at the rebuilt Alabama facility. Bentley and Orr
joined nearly 300 employees, contractors and state and local
officials to dedicate the new building, which was already in
Werner called the rebuilding a
team effort. Everybody pulled together, he said.
We are thankful for so many things.