When a tornado hits your home town

Apologies in advance for the jumpiness/stream of thought style, but that’s just the way I think/write most of the time. Maybe it’ll be cleaned up later.

I was sitting in Buns on Franklin Street and Columbia, enjoying my dinner with a friend (though at this point I can’t for the life of me remember who it was now) when I got the text from Jane, “Is everyone you know okay?”

I looked at the text, not really knowing why she was asking me that, and I sent her a message back saying as much. Her reply turned my immediate worries from my upcoming finals and impending trip to Ecuador to my hometown, three states and a twelve hour drive away.

“The news is saying Tuscaloosa got hit by an F5 tornado.”

What happened after that is a lot more hazy (and typical of my abysmal memory). I do remember frantically calling/texting everyone in my phonebook (didn’t have a smart phone then either). Thankfully I found out really quickly that my family was safe. News from my friends trickled in slowly. I was one of the fortunate ones. Almost everyone I knew ended up relatively unscathed. I think the worst damage was a friend who lost her house, but nothing more. In between the constant updates, I had made it back to my dorm room and stayed glued to my laptop and the news outlets trying to get my hands on any information I could. I didn’t have Twitter then, but that didn’t stop me from finding whatever I could through tweets and facebook posts. Those first few hours were a ridiculous amount of misinformation. People were saying that DCH, the regional hospital, University Mall, and the University of Alabama had all been hit. Gradually, the picture did become clearer.

Jane was wrong, but only in small part. Initial reports did say it was an F5, but it was later reclassified to and F4. Whatever the classification, it still looked pretty terrifying. That reclassification was of little consolation because the damage was still very real: at final count 64 deaths, 7,200 homes and businesses (12% of the city) lost, and $2.2 billion worth of damages. In a lot of ways, the Tuscaloosa tornado is a forgotten tragedy, overshadowed by the F5 tornado that devastated Joplin a month later, which supplanted the Tuscaloosa one as the most expensive in damages.

I don’t think until that point it ever really hit me how much I cared about my hometown, despite the fact that I hardly ever go back anymore. All of that being said, I feel a profound sense of gratitude as well. As bad as the damage was, it could have been much worse. For the most part, the twister spared all of the major landmarks that I mentioned before.

Anyone who knows me knows that I give Alabama a lot of shit. I don’t take pride in much in Alabama besides its football team (don’t ask me where that particular loyalty came from). I joke that growing up in the deep South and escaping without a Southern accent is my life’s greatest accomplishment. As a progressive minority, growing up in the town known for Wallace’s schoolhouse stand was an experience to say the least. I’d be lying if I said I had never received letters in my locker telling me that I was going to hell (being an atheist is frowned upon by some).

Despite all of its flaws, Tuscaloosa was still home. And it still had/has a special place in my heart. That’s where I made some of my closest friends, and though fewer and fewer of us call Tuscaloosa home anymore, we still have that place and the memories associated with it in common. I had my first kiss on Verner’s playground. I had ribs at the original Dreamland BBQ. It is where my manager gave two customers their money back when they asked if there was anyone else who could make the food besides me and my two Hispanic co-workers. It is where I went to my first Alabama football game, a 6-3 victory against Tennessee that also won me $200 bucks (my Dad made a random bet with his co-workers, clearly he didn’t know what he was betting, but it shows that sometimes it is better to be lucky than to be good). It is where I woke up in a 5 in the morning to go on runs with my soccer team and stayed after school with a bunch of fellow nerds to practice for Scholar Bowl. It is where I went to a snow cone place so many times in one summer that even to this day, if I walk up to the stand, the owner will start reaching for a large blue raspberry and tiger blood mix without asking. As much as I wanted to distance myself from Tuscaloosa, Tuscaloosa is still very much a part of me.

I muddled through my finals and put my stuff into storage with the help of my parents. They went back early, and my car was packed full of donations I cobbled together from my friends at UNC. At the end of that drive back, I was driving along the University and Crescent Ridge road, wondering why everything looked so different, besides the lack of trees. With a start, I realized it was because I had never had the sun shining directly in my eyes making that drive before. The tree branches had always blocked the sun before.

There was a lot of work to be done after that day. And there are so many amazing stories of what that community did to come together. In some ways, tornadoes are nature’s most cruel disasters. One house may be leveled. The house right next to it might be untouched. But that gave neighbors the chance to help other neighbors, something that isn’t possible with other disasters like hurricanes and floods. I saw a picture of a friend of mine shake hands with Barack Obama during the clean up efforts pop up on Facebook. Stories of the Alabama football team’s Barrett Jones walking through neighborhoods with chainsaw in hand made the rounds. The outpouring of support included LSU and Auburn fans, enemies on the gridiron, but people first and foremost. The football team that remained pride and joy of the community went on to lift the spirit of the town by winning the national championship the following season.

I can’t personally speak to the progress and the recovery that has been made since April 27, 2011. All told, I’ve probably spent less than a month total in my hometown since that fateful day. Despite reports to the contrary, the businesses are coming back. My favorite snow cone joint re-opened three months after getting considerable damage. The skyline may be different, but the spirit remains. I won’t ever forget that fateful day, but I think the slogan that my hometown came up with after the fact remains true: T-Town, Never Down. 

Photo credit: T-Town Never Down

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