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An art installation that is actually here in a downtown Mobile building - made from debris found in Holt, AL outside of Tuscaloosa, and debris from Hurricane Katrina.
When April 27th appears on the calendar, I always remember. Where I was, what I heard, what I saw. Every year I write out my account of the Tuscaloosa Tornado. To remember and praise God for the protection He surrounded me with that day, but also to grieve. To remember what was lost - the people, the places, the things. We are talking a lot in these days filled with pandemic about what our new "normal" will look like. Thinking of it now, when I walked out of my dorm that Tuesday evening on the campus of The University of Alabama, I was walking out to a new normal. A new Tuscaloosa. Changed in a way we never thought would be.
Below is a post that I wrote shortly after April 27th - it must have first appeared on my old blog, because I didn't start writing here until 2014. I'm so grateful that I transferred this post over - to help me remember. I wanted to revisit it again today, with new thoughts or things I remember throughout in bold. Because as the years go by, and next year a decade, it's going to get harder to remember. But there is beauty in remembering, even when something is hard, scary, and traumatic.
This isn't the most well-written thing I've ever written, but I can tell I wrote it shortly after, because it's so jumbled in parts. It includes some of the most random thoughts - like being annoyed by having to sit in a hallway full of girls. I think now, that was an indication I really wasn't taking this as serious as I could have, until we really knew what was happening outside. But, you'll see that later.
This is just a re-post of a post that I created shortly after the April 27th, Tuscaloosa Tornado. I don't intend to upset anyone or bring up bad memories. This day is one that I both want to forget and never forget, because it gives me a picture of God's grace and protection. This is only my account of that day. Although I didn't lose anything, my home for the past 5 years was torn apart. My thoughts and prayers are with those families who are still rebuilding and putting together pieces of their lives. My thoughts and prayers are also with those families who are without dearly loved and missed members of their families: fathers and mothers, sons and daughters, brothers and sisters.
Hard, scary, traumatic.
April 27th was a beautiful day.
Besides the fact that I had to spend the gorgeous, blue-skied day sitting in class after class, it was a good day. We all knew the potential for bad weather later on in the day, but if it was going to be like the past few days, that was going to blow over with nothing really to talk about.
The Friday before the Tuesday tornado, one had hit through the southern part of the city. It was quick, but at the time we were annoyed to have to go downstairs. I remember we shrugged it off so much - now I see a warning and I don't care if it hits the ground or not, I take it seriously.
Sitting in one of my classes, I told one of my friends that she could come to my dorm if she wanted to and we could ride out the tornado together with my roommates. I told her to come whenever, but that I still had one more class that afternoon unless it got canceled. Like usual, it didn't, so I was preparing to go to class.
Typical Bama student y'all - we always joked that classes never got canceled for anything. Soon to be proven wrong.
Ten minutes before my class, I was sitting in my dorm living room with one of my roommates and my friend that came over. We were watching James Spann on the news as he was covering a storm that was heading toward Cullman, Al. The town that one of my roommates is from. I decided to be a few minutes late to class, because I wanted to stay with her, make sure she was okay and to watch the storm to see what happened. The three of us were watching the TV, not really expecting anything, until we saw it. A funnel cloud form and eventually touch down in Cullman County. We watched as it quickly formed and then as it started making its way through the town. I remember seeing a radio tower fall as the tornado passed over it.
Watching that tornado form on camera was wild. I had never seen anything like it, except in movies. It happened so fast. And the radio tower, I remember driving through Tuscaloosa after the tornado days later and seeing one down on the side of the road. I see both of those scenes in my mind so vividly and think about them every time I see one reaching into the sky while driving now.
My roommate called her parents to make sure that they were okay. When I heard that they were, I decided to go ahead and go to class. I was going to be ten minutes late, but it was the last week before finals, so I figured that I needed to go.
I didn't take a rain jacket because it had not started raining yet and was still pretty blue outside. I walked to class through the wind and got into my class and saw that they were watching a movie. I immediately regretted my choice of coming to class. I sat down and literally about 10 minutes later, a girl speaks up and says that a tornado warning has been issued for the southern part of our county.
I remember all of us looking at my classmate as she said this and then simultaneously looking back to our teacher. One of those moments where it seemed we (young adults so adamant to think for ourselves) were all okay with someone else telling us what to do, almost like simply needing a parent-figure to say it would be okay.
After deciding that we should go downstairs, our teacher makes us all file down into a small first floor area. The warning did not include our University yet, so we then found out it was okay to go back upstairs. Well, being the college students that we are, we all were debating what to do. Stay and review for the final or just forget about it and go home.
I decided to bail and go back to my dorm. Going to that class for literally 5-10 minutes was so not worth it. So, I along with the majority of my class, start walking our different directions. As I'm walking back to my dorm, I noticed that the wind had picked up and there were some sprinkles.
The majority of us left, again probably thinking back to that storm the week before. Thinking we would just get a free afternoon.
As soon as I got to the steps and porch of my dorm, the tornado siren goes off.
The rules of the dorm are, that if you hear the siren, you have to come downstairs. As I was walking in the building, I texted my friends upstairs and told them to come down. The siren then went off and the RA downstairs said for us to not worry about it, but that if we heard another one we should make our way to the first floor.
I get upstairs, put my book bag down, go to the bathroom and come back into the living room as another siren comes on. By this time, I'm just like really! Make up your freakin' mind! I did not want to go downstairs and sit in a hallway with tons of other girls for 3 hours. We had to do that a week before and it was not a pleasant experience. Apparently, when you are in a hallway with everyone else, this is when you are supposed to start being annoying and inconsiderate. Right, perfect timing guys...or should I say girls.
Remembering this makes me see how naive we were and how much we weren't taking it seriously. Also, it may seem like I was annoyed to be in a girls only dorm, but I wasn't - I was just annoyed at the thought of having to be crammed with ALL of them in the bottom floor of my dorm for who knew how long - especially if it ended up being a false alarm.
Anyways, we make our way to the first floor and find our spot in the corner that we had grown very fond of. We make friends with some other girls that we had never met before and start talking. Well, then the phones start ringing, texts come in and talking increases throughout the hallway. We get messages from people asking if we are okay and others telling us there is a bad storm on the way.
There were a couple of guys in the hall with us, and I distinctly remember one saying, "What do you mean there's a Jeep in the pool?" That's when we opened up laptops and started texting to figure out what was happening. Also, I mention James Spann below. I truly think he should be our national weatherman - if we had such a thing. While the death toll got much higher than anyone wanted to see - he and his team truly did help save many lives that day. I will always chant, "Spann, Spann, he's the man, he's our great weatherman!"
We get online to see what is going on and find James Spann once again.
He is our great weather man! I am really glad that we have him doing weather for the area. He has helped and informed so many people! Props and kudos to him!
Please again recite the chant above in his honor.
We are watching the live feed with about 9,000 other people watching online as well. They finally flash to a picture of the tornado heading into Tuscaloosa. I see my two friends who are watching it gasp and put their hands over their mouths. I was thinking, "I've got to see this." So, I leaned over the hallway and peered over her computer screen to see the monster that is coming toward us.
This is what we see.
And the last thing that we hear? That it is heading straight for the University of Alabama.
We all look at each other and pretty much just say that this is going to be a bumpy ride. But as we turn to face the wall and get into tornado position, that one that we learned back in kindergarten, we were all praying that God would keep us safe.
The lights flickered and then everything went black.
There was just the light of cell phones and the chattering of scared students.
We heard loud rushes of wind that we now know were the tornado. It came a mile away from my dorm.
I remember the chatter that had filled the hallway become quieter. Surely that picture was slowly spread through the hallway. I remember some crying, but I remember prayer out loud more than anything. And I remember the wind. Others who have experienced a tornado directly says that it sounds like a freight train when it's right on top of you and a jet plane when you're near it. I heard the jet plane. There are ways memories come back to you, sometimes in the oddest and most random of ways. I can still hear that noise when the wind gets bad outside, or blows through a small crack in a window or door threshold. Even the fan in my bedroom sometimes resembles a siren noise if I focus on it too long.
When we were able to get outside, we saw that there was one tree down and thought that maybe the rest of our town had been spared as well. The power was out and phone lines down. We couldn't get in touch with anyone or find out any information.
We heard initial reports that the hospital was gone and that other parts of 15th Street were gone. The hospital turned out to be fine except for some busted windows.
15th Street however, was very hard hit. It was pretty much gone.
We debated about whether to go to a friends house that was over the River. They had no damage and still had power. Or if we should stay at the dorm. We ended up staying at the dorm that night, downstairs in the common living room. We ate Peanut Butter and talked and listened to different stories that we heard, not really knowing all the truth yet.
Peanut butter. Wow. I don't remember that. I do remember us all piling up in the common room of the first floor, pulling chairs together to make beds. My room was on the 4th floor, and I don't think we were scared to go back up there and sleep - but my room had become so humid from the air outside (we opened our window a lot and couldn't quite get it back down all the way, so it always let in a bit of air with a whistling noise) that the fire alarm/smoke detector was going off. Not wanting to sleep with that noise, we stayed downstairs. Fire alarms now are another thing that trigger me with memories and anxiety. Just the anticipation of one going of - again, it's crazy what the mind and body remember when we don't fully ourselves. Glad it's not the peanut butter.
The next morning, we got up and packed some bags and went to my friend's house. We sat down in her living room and my other friend that was there asked if we had seen or heard anything. It had been 12 hours since the tornado. For 12 hours we had been without power, little phone service, and no news. When we first saw the videos and the pictures, we thought it was unreal. There was no way that our town had just gotten taken out by a tornado.
But, it had.
For the next several hours, as much as we didn't want to continue watching the videos, news, or look at the pictures, we continued to. We couldn't take our eyes off of it. It was all so surreal.
I still have FB messages from that day, on my wall and in my inbox, of people trying to get through any way they could for communication.
Time seemed to slow. That first week after the tornado felt like a month. Classes had been suspended for the rest of the semester. We had the option to take our finals or take the grade we had in the class.
Graduation for those in May wasn't held.
For 6 students at the University of Alabama, tomorrow never came.
I was twenty-two when this happened in 2011, in my fourth year at Bama (I would stay for a fifth year). I don't know if I ever thought about it then, but I should have been a Senior. If I had been on track, I would have been in the group that didn't experience a graduation that May. They were honored at the Fall Graduation, but like the rest of us, classes, finals, graduation - it was all the last thing on our minds.
41 people in Tuscaloosa lost their lives and more than 200 in the state were killed.
The actual death toll for Tuscaloosa County is 53. Denny Chimes on campus rings at 5:13pm, when the tornado came through, 53 times it chimes for those who were lost. 252 were lost statewide.
Thousands lost homes.
Many were missing.
Shelters were set up, search and rescue teams were sent out. The state was declared to be in a state of disaster and emergency.
Although I didn't personally lose anything that day in the tornado. It was still my town. For the past 4 years I have called that place home and now it was destroyed.
For a couple of days I couldn't do anything, but watch the news and videos. And when that got tiring, a funny, Disney movie.
It was hard, scary, and traumatizing.
I finally got up, praised God that I was okay and that everyone I knew was okay. Talked to my parents and many others who called to check on me. And went out to lend a helping hand to those that had lost everything.
I went to Alberta City. I picked up shingles, dug through rubble, carried off limbs.
I helped separate what was to keep or throw away.
I went to Hargrove.
I saw 15th Street.
I served food at the Belk Center. I cooked food.
I went out with the American Red Cross to serve hot food to people in areas that hadn't been reached yet.
I did the only thing I knew to do. I served the people around me. I responded when called.
All of a sudden, the area of need wasn't a plane ride away. I could walk to it.
My mission field was a disaster.
It was where God called me.
Even though it was hard, scary, and traumatizing.
Now, three years later, much of the state has made great roads to recovery. Tuscaloosa is still growing and getting stronger. Parts of the city have been rebuilt, new land put down, and new buildings have gone up. Things look very different in parts of the city and even now when I drive through it, I have to think for a second about where I am. It definitely isn't the same city it was when I was there. But, it is still a city that I call home. That town means more to me than lots of others I've lived in. It will always be like home. And this will always be a time where I stop and reflect on what happened that day in history.
When I visit Tuscaloosa now, I always come up via 43/69 through downtown. Right before I cross over 15th street, the road rises and I look to my right. Down to a skyline that I have seen changed three times. I remember the one from when I came into town as a freshman, the one after the storm, and the one now - after rebuild. I drive through now sometimes forgetting which part of the city I'm in because it's so different than the one I lived in. I remember weeks after the tornado, I was riding with a friend and she said we were on Hargrove - I told her we weren't and she had to correct me. That's how different it looked - I was lost in a city that I knew pretty well. Years later, I would meet a woman in Petal, MS, outside of Hattiesburg, while out doing tornado relief work. I walked to the side of the road as she slowed next to me in her SUV, window rolled down.
"I'm sorry, can you tell me what street we are on?" she asked.
"No, ma'am. I'm sorry, I'm not from here so I'm not sure."
She paused and then slowly, on the verge of tears said, "I've lived here all my life. But I don't know where I am."
Then she drove off, into her new normal.
I don't think I ever expect a day to be any different than the one before it. Days seem the same, mundane. And most of the time, they are. Until a day when it all changes to a normal we never thought would be.
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