Five years. 1, 462 days. 35,088 hours. 2,105,280 minutes.
Some times it feels like April 27, 2011 was a lifetime ago, and there are other times when it feels like it just occurred. If you grow up in Alabama, every spring the one sound you hear frequently, unfortunately, is that of tornado sirens screeching through the still air.
We had been warned that April 27th would not be like any other day. Tornadoes are frequent in Alabama in April, in fact not 12 days before one had passed through the south side of the city. But on this day, the conditions were just right for a super tornado outbreak. It was the week before finals during my first year MBA. I was anxious to attend those last classes to gain that one last piece of information that would help me pass my finals. In the early morning hours, the city of Tuscaloosa was awoken by massive thunder storms and sirens, and we would later realize was the start of this infamous day. I moved through my day like any other only paying closer attention to the radar during my spare minutes of studying and with James Spann talking in the background.
Waiting for my night class to start, my best friend called me from Montgomery and told me to head to campus for cover. She said a super cell containing a tornado was heading for Tuscaloosa. I grabbed my books, computer and ran to campus. I called my brother on the way and told him to not mess around; this was going to be the storm to beat all storms.
As I made it to the MBA Lounge in the basement of Bidgood Hall, there were other students hanging out and studying. I started up my computer, found the radar, turned on the TV to James Spann, and watched as the tornado crossed into Tuscaloosa County. We watched helpless as it moved towards us. We moved across the hall to get away from windows unsure where the storm was going to strike in the city. We watched on my laptop (thanks to internet being one of the items on the generator) as James Spann reported on the storm tearing through the city trying our best to figure out the path based on landmarks mentioned. It only took minutes for it leave our city, and it when it was over we had no clue what was left. As we quietly left the building, the only thing we noticed was broken branches lying on the Quad and the sound of sirens in the distance. There is nothing as helpless a sound as when all the fire trucks, ambulances, and police cars in your city converge to an area a mile away from you.
It took several attempts to get in touch with my parents to tell them I was safe. And that’s when I heard the rumor that Central High School was gone. That was a little over a mile away, and all I knew was my brother was in the apartments behind it. I told my parents what I had heard, and I sat on the steps of my building calling my brother repeatedly until he picked up. It felt like a lifetime, but in fact was about 30 minutes. He was safe.
The hours that followed were a blur. My friends checked for me that my apartment was standing and my car was safe. Those of us in the Lounge went to the grocery store down the street for beer and food. Our dinner that night consisted of chips and Bud Light. We sat in the halls of Bidgood unable to process what had just occurred. My apartment had no water or power, so instead my friend, Rachel, and I slept on the couches in the Lounge. The next morning I stepped out to survey the carnage for the first time ever. I walked the couple of blocks to 15th Street, and the only thing I remember is the smell. The smell of wet, splintered wood and severed gas lines produces a distinctive odor that stands apart from any other smell I had ever encountered.
Not really being able to function in my apartment, I packed a small bag and headed to stay with my Tuscaloosa family. In the days that followed, I’d get up early and head to Emergency Serves on 15th Street to distribute food and go through all the donations. And in that metal warehouse, I saw first hand the outpouring of love and support. It was in little things like someone driving the 45 minutes from Birmingham with a hundred Krispy Kreme doughnuts. It was running into Home Depot to buy tarps for friends and realizing that the gentleman helping me was from Tennessee. It was strangers driving from all over to lend a helping hand in clearing debris.
The hands and feet of Jesus were alive and well in the days, weeks and months that followed April 27, 2011. The people who came may forget that this tornado outbreak ever occurred, but I can tell you their presence was a healing balm on our wide open wounds. The state still has its scar marks in the landscape, and the its people even more. But Alabamians are resilient, and we never let something like this get us down. We come back stronger than ever, and even though Tuscaloosa will never be the same again it is very much alive and beating. #TTownNeverDown