Phil Campbells and the Recovery of Phil Campbell, Ala.

Would-be conventioneers continue to aid a tornado damaged town that shares their name

Image
Phil Campbell

It’s pretty safe to say that Phil Campbell loves Phil Campbell. And vice versa.

They're an unlikely couple who’d have to try pretty hard to be much more different. One’s a novelist from Brooklyn. The other is a small town in northwest Alabama, about 90 miles from Birmingham, that’s home to roughly 1,100 people. What Phil Campbell the man and Phil Campbell the town do have in common is obvious, and yet something as simple as a relatively ordinary name has become the basis of a deep connection between the two.

In 1995, Phil Campbell, Ala., organized a convention of people named Phil Campbell in Phil Campbell. In all, 22 Phil Campbells – and one Phyllis Campbell – attended the event in the town, named after a 19th Century train engineer named Phil Campbell. The convention was a self-described "silly prank" the Brooklyn Campbell dreamed up while in college and delightfully recounted in an article that year for Might magazine (and recently republished by McSweeney’s), “Phil Campbell? Phil Campbell. Welcome to Phil Campbell.”

In the years after, the Phil Campbells drifted apart. Efforts were made by locals to lure them back, but evidently, the thrill of being in the company of other Phil Campbells, in the town of Phil Campbell, had faded. Then few years ago, on a whim, the Brooklyn Campbell decided to check in. He saw that the town was preparing to host a party in the Summer of 2011 to celebrate the 100 anniversary of its incorporation, which seemed a perfect opportunity for a second Phil Campbell convention in Phil Campbell. And now with a social and searchable Internet on his side, he could invite an international collection of Phil Campbells.

“I had to do it again,” he says.

There were two Facebook pages for the event – one made by the town of Phil Campbell, the other by a group of conventioneer Phil Campbells. Eventually they merged and everyone started to get to know each other online. Preparations were underway and travel plans were being made by dozens of Phil Campbells from the U.S. and beyond. Australians. New Zealanders. English. “I even got a Jamaican,” Campbell says.

But on April 27, a month and a half before the big celebration, Phil Campbell, Ala., was hit by an EF5-rated tornado, the most dangerous and destructive kind. Winds were reported at more than 200 miles per hour.

"It looks like a bomb went off diagonally through the town," says Phil Campbell Mayor Jerry Mays.

Twenty-seven people died in the disaster. Roughly 450 structures were destroyed, including the town's high school. The overall damages totaled $119 million. For what Mays calls a "bedroom community" of just 1,100, the damage was devastating. Everybody knows everybody, and everybody was affected. Even, it turns out, the dozens of Phil Campbells, who had up until that moment been planning a carefree and somewhat wacky weekend in their nominal hometown.

Mays suggested to Campbell ("Brooklyn Phil, as we call him") that the Phil Campbells should cancel their plans to visit what was now a thoroughly thrashed town. But Campbell and the other Phils weren’t willing to back away.

"By the time the tornado hit, we were fully invested in some way with the town that you couldn’t just abandon," Campbell says.

Through their Facebook group, the Phils began a rapid conversation about how to use their planned convention to help the town of Phil Campbell. Within two days they had a rough plan to raise money and help with the cleanup.

"The next six weeks was this sort of frenzied period of trying to hold it all together and make sure that A, enough Phil Campbells were going to come,” Campbell says, “and B, using that to leverage raising money or media attention or something. It was all very trial-by-fire.”

“It evolved, I think, into sort of an obligation,” says Andrew Reed, a Phil Campbell native and documentarian.

That June weekend, 19 Phil Campbells showed up to help the town recover, a process documented on ImWithPhil.com, a relief effort website built and run by a team of Phil Campbells. They helped with some of the cleanup and also donated the nearly $35,000 they’d raised through the website and corporate sponsorships. “It was neighbors helping neighbors and strangers helping strangers,” says Mays, who still seems surprised about the help from this unlikely group of outsiders.

The town even stayed at least partially true to their intended centennial hoedown, pulling off a celebratory parade. The Phils were packed into the backs of pickup trucks driving down the main road, trailing a team of bagpipers and accompanied by carloads of alumni from Phil Campbell High School. And the media did take note. The story was covered by The New York Times, BBC, NPR, ABC and NBC, among many others.

“[Brooklyn] Phil Campbell putting together all the other Phil Campbells has been a real benefit to Phil Campbell,” says Mays. “We were just tickled to death for them to be here and support us.”

But when the weekend ended and the Phil Campbells dispersed back around the world to their respective homes, the town of Phil Campbell remained – and still remains – in shambles. Some residents have taken FEMA money and left town, while others are still struggling to get by. The Brooklyn Campbell and many other Phil Campbells say they are still involved in the recovery, and continue to try to raise money.

Reed, who had been working on a documentary about the Phil Campbell Convention, decided to reframe his film to focus on the recovery effort. Reed and the Brooklyn Campbell are working on a cut of the film and are planning to enter it in as many festivals as they can. The idea, Reed says, is to show people the slow pace of recovery in Phil Campbell and to inspire donations, as well as to use any potential festival winnings to benefit the recovery. Reed expects the documentary to begin screening later this year.

Locals also helped the town’s schools enter a competition put on by the producers of the television show “Glee” that awarded grants to school bands.* Phil Campbell High School – now a collection of trailers while the school building awaits demolition – was recently announced as one of three grand prize winners. The school was awarded $50,000, and the local elementary school won another $25,000.

Mays says that this type of philanthropy has been key to helping the town recover, but much more support from the government and other donors is needed. “We’ve got a lot to build back,” Mays says. The town also has a 10-year recovery plan. “But we hope it won’t take that long.”

With the continued support of the network of Phil Campbells, it likely won’t. The Brooklyn Campbell is regularly involved with keeping fundraising going for Phil Campbell. He’s now inextricably linked with the town, if he wasn’t already. It’s an odd development for him, to become so enmeshed with the fate of a town and people he had practically no real connection with at all. It’s been surreal, he says.

"The day after the convention, I started getting friended on Facebook by all these people from Alabama. I’m now Facebook friends with 300 people I don’t know and couldn’t be more culturally different from," Campbell says. "It’s been very strange to see this thing twist and become very serious and in some ways profound to make connections with people that you’ve really got very little in common with. It’s not only other Phil Campbells, but people of the town of Phil Campbell.”

Campbell says he’s in regular contact with officials and residents in Phil Campbell to stay involved in the recovery effort. He’s hopeful the town will continue to build itself back up, and that the governmental and insurance support will come through to help rebuild the town and prevent any more residents from having to leave.

While the Phil Campbells expect to stay remotely involved, there aren’t any plans yet for another convention.

"Thanks to the Internet and social networking, it’s not like ‘95 where I just disappeared for 15 years and didn’t talk to anybody about the town again. We’re always talking to people about the town now," says Campbell. "I bet we’ll be back. It’s just a question of when."

And in Phil Campbell, when the houses are rebuilt and the town takes shape again, its doors will be open to the Phil Campbells of the world.

"We’ve always told them, 'this is your town and you’re welcome here,'" says Mays. "'Just come on home.'"

All photos courtesy Phil Campbell

*A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Andrew Reed was involved in the production of the video for the school band competition. In fact, he was not.

About the Author

  • Nate Berg is a freelance reporter and a former staff writer for CityLab. He lives in Los Angeles.