Posted on May 25, 2011
This post isn’t about God, or luck. It’s not meant to be dramatic, or inspiring. I simply want to share a personal story that began on April 27th, 2011. The tornado that obliterated portions of Tuscaloosa, and ripped across Alabama and the southern U.S. were devastating to say the least. The loss of life and property was historic, tragic and painfully close for everyone.
The week started out as any regular week in Tuscaloosa, AL. I happened to be visiting from New Jersey while my wife finished up her grad school semester to take care of some loose ends, shoot a few engagement photo sessions, see friends, and just relax. Little did I know that my entire outlook about Alabama would be forever changed, and the state would send me off me with new perspectives on many of life’s toughest questions.
3AM | April 27
I was staying about 5 miles north of UA in Northport when the first storm rolled through at 3 a.m. I began receiving text message alerts a few hours earlier that severe weather was on it way, but I can’t begin to tell you how many warnings we get over the course of a typical week in the spring or fall. I took note, but all that I could do is hope that it decided not to hail on my wife’s car (our only way out of Alabama in three days.) The lightning began lighting up the room, and the strikes hit closer and closer. One bolt hit directly behind the apartment complex and shook the hell out of our building. As usual, the inner storm-chaser in me decided to check out what was going on outside for myself (stupid. don’t do this. ever.) The flashes were so intense and persistent and the rain was coming down in sheets–sideways, backwards, seemingly upside down and changing directions every few seconds. I’ve never seen anything like it in my life.
I kept checking the radar since James Spann wasn’t broadcasting (no threats of tornadoes at the time.) Something about watching James makes (most) Alabamians comfortable, I can’t describe the feeling. Ask anyone from here though, they’ll tell you he’s the best in the industry (who watches Fox for weather, anyway?) So James wasn’t on air, but we considered that a good sign.
Finally, after a good half-hour soaking, the storm moved on. Little did we know this storm was a precursor.
The previous weekend
We knew it was coming, we just didn’t know how bad, and where. James had predicted a historic weather event for Tuesday – Wednesday at least 5 days in advance. The perfect cocktail of weather was developing miles away, all preparing to converge over Alabama.
It’s a funny thing with tornadoes. I think people adopt the “it will never happen here” mindset since they tend to be a rare event. We see footage on TV of enormous tornadoes that mostly stay away from civilization. The humanizing part of these shows is that they occasionally show you the personal reality of disaster when a tornado does strike a community.
Like I said, we knew it was coming. We got the warnings on our phones, in our emails and now on Twitter. Days in advance this time. But a tornado would never hit the city of Tuscaloosa. Right? We literally just had one a month earlier!
430-ish PM | April 27
Tanya and I were on The University of Alabama campus watching MBA students present their final service audit projects. I was keeping up with the incoming weather updates, especially after watching the live feed of the Cullman tornado that hit the downtown area just a few hours earlier. I was definitely hyped–slightly nervous, yet still confident that Tuscaloosa itself, the city I called home for four years, would be spared. Besides, storms always track just north or south of the city. We don’t have to worry. It won’t happen here.
Cell phone reception was shitty inside the building on the first floor, but I could see on someone’s computer screen that storms were blowing up all around us. I started getting nervous, and since I was just sitting in on the class, I got up and walked out just as the PA system went off saying that we were under a tornado warning. Students and faculty were crowded around a lounge area TV, so I pushed and elbowed my way through to get my first glimpse of the impending storm. I couldn’t hear the TV because most people were chatting–again, as if nothing were going to happen.
I, however, being a tornado newbie, started panicking. This might actually happen, I thought to myself. In the meantime, I was texting Tanya to get out of the classroom, despite the professor’s request that everyone stay calm and continue with the presentations. As she (disobediently) exited the room, we ran into neighboring Alston Hall where James Spann was being projected onto the gigantic screen in the lecture hall. We came in just as the tornado was forming over the outskirts of the city, and I could not believe what my eyes were seeing. A tornado. On camera. In Tuscaloosa. Heading our direction.
You could feel the shock and fear all around the room. People frantically trying to call and warn friends and family. Then, the power shut off and everything went black. We knew it was coming, but all we could do was wait. We knew this was real, but had no idea if we were in path. We figured it wouldn’t be long before hell broke loose, if it even hit campus at all. But we had no way of finding out. We were disconnected, in the dark, only left to our imaginations.
As if without thinking, people began bringing up live feeds on their iPads and smart phones. A quick passing moment went by where we heard and felt a deep rumble in the distance. I initially passed it as a generator trying to restore power, but then quickly realized that wasn’t it. There were a few more distance crashes, then complete silence. As we huddled around tiny iPhone screens, the tornado was destroying areas just minutes away from our location. This is actually fucking happening. Then, the tornado turned toward residential areas, directly through the heart of the city at the intersection of McFarland and 15th Street–in its path, the cities of Holt and Alberta City. After carving through the city, it began moving NW through the county into neighboring Jefferson county.
As mentioned, I, like most other Alabamians find comfort in James Spann’s knowledge of severe weather. But when you hear fear in that man’s voice, you know something’s terribly wrong. And on April 27th, we heard fear in James Spann’s voice.
Looking both ways
As we exited Alston Hall and realized the tornado hadn’t hit campus, we immediately went to check on our car that was parked near Bryant-Denny Stadium. The car was intact. But, as we drove away from campus to investigate, I was in no way prepared to process the devastation and emotions I was about experience.
We got in the car and sped down 10th Ave. No damage yet. As we approached 15th Street we saw smoke in the distance towards West Side and immediately raced towards the area.
What did your parents teach you to always do before you cross a street? Look both ways. Well guess what I didn’t do that day as we sat at the stoplight on 15th Street? We were right there, a few hundred feet from mass destruction, literally right in front of us on Hackberry Lane. My adrenaline was so through the roof that I completely missed trees, buildings, and vehicles strewn across the street.
As we sped towards Kauloosa Avenue, it became clear that the tornado had started somewhere in this area. We saw people emerging from their partially collapsed homes–confused, scared, but alive. We drove past brick homes that were obliterated. Larger industrial buildings in the area were twisted into massive piles of pipes and metal, and vehicles were intertwined with telephone poles and wires.
Somehow, in this middle of all this destruction, the Tuscaloosa Metro Animal Shelter had barely been affected. A momentary glimmer of relief passed through the car since we had adopted four dogs from there. Minor exterior damage, but the structure was still standing. Across the street? Not so lucky. The building had been flattened, and water gushed at least 20 feet in the air splashing down on a debris pile.
A large 18 wheeler was blocking the road ahead so we had to turn around. We drove through a maze of power lines, chunks of splintered wood, and shattered glass to get back to 15th. As we kept driving, we could easily see that the tornado had only grown as it made its way toward town. Near the residential areas, the path widened from maybe a tenth of a mile, to easily nearly one half-mile wide. The story only got worse as we drove. Just as I’d ask myself, “Holy shit, how could this get worse?” It did. Somehow. As if a building could be more obliterated than the last, it was.
The smells. The sights. Chilling doesn’t even begin to describe. Walking through this kind of destruction is a full sensory experience. One you want to forget, but just can’t shake. Oil, gas and for some weird reason, a hint of fresh pine dominate the air. The air is overwhelmingly heavy, wet and earthy, making it uncomfortable and difficult to breathe.
The sounds. Chirping fire alarms, car alarms, rushing water, snapping trees, sirens and chainsaws. At the same time, it’s strangely and eerily silent–like when snow falls. The piercing and persistent silence surrounds you, but everything else is just slightly muffled.
You don’t have to say anything–the fear and shock can be heard loud and clear. The wind blows slightly over your shoulder and you panic, looking all around you for an impending, towering cloud.
Most roads were completely impassable. At this point, we were still one of the few cars on the road as we made our way back to 15th Street. We noticed emergency vehicles rushing east towards McFarland and decided to follow to see if we could help. We pulled over at Guthries on 15th. That’s about as far as we could get before the traffic backed up, so we figured walking would be faster. I stepped out of the car and into a pile of glass. Awesome. I looked up and the inside of the restaurant was right in front of me.
We began walking east, past the flower shop and McAlister’s, where we had eaten lunch not but two hours earlier. The flower shop’s front wall had collapsed, and McAlister’s had some exterior damage as well. As we walked further over the crest of 15th, and for as far as we could see, there was nothing. A void–where neighborhoods and huge trees stood minutes ago–littered with scraps of metal and wood, people’s belongings and demolished vehicles for miles. It’s incredibly difficult to describe the thoughts that run through your head, and the chills that run through your body. This isn’t TV, you have to remind yourself.
We’ve driven down 15th Street hundreds of times over the past five years, and there we were on April 27th–walking in the middle of the road, with no traffic or landmarks, completely unable to recognize where we even were. “This is 15th street? Wait, where are we? This can’t be.” It’s disorienting, disturbing, heartbreaking.
We could only hope that people heard the warnings, heeded them, and had enough time to get out of the way. If not, well, there was nothing left of the buildings that once stood, and frankly, it was unfathomable to think people (and animals) were able to survive. As we ran closer to the tornado’s path, the sights and smells got heavier–completely overwhelming at some points.
It didn’t take long for rumors to start spreading on the streets. People started running towards us screaming, “Turn around! There’s another one coming! And it’s headed right towards Tuscaloosa, again!” I tried texting my father-in-law for more weather updates–no signal. But, one of his texts had come through a few minutes earlier saying, “Another storm on the way!” Despite the warnings, there were still people walking toward McFarland, so we continued east, too.
We passed (what used to be) Mike and Ed’s BBQ. We passed several car dealerships where we couldn’t even recognize a single car make or model anymore. Most cars were tossed and turned, had objects protruding through a door or a roof, or were crushed by power lines and building materials.
As we neared one of the neighborhoods, we noticed a lake. We sort of knew there was a lake there before, but it was hidden by homes and trees, and definitely not visible from 15th St. But now, it was in plain sight. You could see clear across it, where the neighborhood once stood. An entire section of the city had been uncovered for us–and in just five days, we ended up discovering more of Tuscaloosa than we had in five years. Debris from the houses surrounding the lake were strewn all about the lake, including a large trailer that had been picked up and thrown at least 100 feet from the street.
Everyone was walking around in shock. No one knew who or where to help first. People walked around aimlessly with hammers, saws, and other tools.
Looking back, and I think everyone in Tuscaloosa on April 27th will attest, there was this overwhelming shared sense of compassion, pride, love and humanity. Tuscaloosa saw one its darkest days in April 2011, but it is so much stronger because of the perspective gained and the lessons learned. In a way, it reminds me of the pride the nation demonstrated after 9/11. We all came together as a nation and helped, donated and became compassionate toward one another. The national outpouring of support was felt in a major way in this small corner of Alabama.
I have a newfound sense of respect and love for Tuscaloosa after April 27th. Alabama showed the nation how important it is for a community to come together in the aftermath of a disaster. The residents and probably thousands of out-of-staters who volunteered brought so much hope and pride and hope. From the power companies that came from as far away as Illinois and Virginia, the men and women who worked tirelessly, night and day to restore power to half a million people across the region in less than a week. To the medical and emergency responders, search and rescue men and women (and dogs) who all risked their lives to save another. To the volunteers, organizations, corporations (and yes, even celebrities) who contributed to the cleanup and restoration of the city. I hope the emotions never fade, for Tuscaloosa’s sake. It’s amazing how the best things come out of the worst events.
These kinds of events change you in a big way. I now know that if you can’t physically be somewhere to help, it’s still possible to make a difference. If you can make a $5 contribution, do it. If you can send a care package or organize a supply drop in your area, then do it. Just do something to help.Tuscaloosa Tornado by Zack Sylvan