By: Hal Jones
(Photo Credit, Jeff Roberts, Birmingham News) There is no way I can effectively communicate the feeling that pervaded the State of Alabama one year ago today. For days the weather forecasters had predicted that the entire State would be under the gun for one of the worst tornado outbreaks on record. It’s one thing to be told a killer will be in your neighborhood soon, it is entirely a different matter to stand facing him eye to eye. April 27, 2011 the residents of Alabama faced the killer and like any good novel about bad guys, there were and are heroes.
At 5:00 in the morning a small tornado woke my family. I really don’t know how much warning was given on radios and television, but the roar of the storm got my attention. Living on top of a mountain, I can see for miles to the north and west of our home and looking out the bedroom window I could see the storm had already passed, missing our neighborhood by less than a mile. Returning to the television I saw where more tornadoes had hit areas in the northern part of our state, some damage, a few injuries were known and a severe loss of power I affected areas. I got dressed and took my then 14 year old daughter to school. Within minutes of dropping her off, the automated parent notification system called my cell and said school would be dismissing shortly. Arriving at work, I noticed many computer screens already had radar maps and weather stations pulled up. The morning storms and the forecast that the worst was yet to come had gotten everyone’s attention, even those of us who rarely react when weather forecast predict the second coming, were definitely paying attention this day. Our office closed at lunch. Schools were closing and employees had to leave to pick their children up. Likewise I picked my daughter up and returned to my mother’s house located atop the next to last southernmost mountain in the Appalachian chain.
Watching the clouds roll in and the sky take on the eerie color that often proceeds tornadic weather, I went ahead and put together flashlights, battery operated radio(thanks Milwaukee) and made sure we had what we needed. My daughter, my 80 year old mother who would turn 81 the next day and I began watching the local stations weather coverage. As with many towns throughout the country, it has become fashionable to set up remote cameras on television towers that offer panoramic views without interruption from trees or building, these cameras were feeding live images of tornadoes bearing down on Tuscaloosa and Cullman. Concern would not be a strong enough word to convey the emotion we were feeling watching the feed from Tuscaloosa. My sister was in class at the University of Alabama and we couldn’t reach her via cell phone to find out if she was ok or even knew about the storm. My stepson, also a student at the University was on Facebook at the time and I knew he was aware of the storm, I just wasn’t sure he understood enough of large tornadoes to be afraid.
As the tornado bore down on Tuscaloosa, my phone rang. It was my sister calling to see if I wanted her to bring me BBQ from Tuscaloosa. She wasn’t aware of the tornado. I told her she had 10 minutes before it hit. She asked if I thought she should go inside the restaurant and ride it out. I told her no, to come to mom’s house as fast as possible without stopping. Technically my answer was wrong. Being caught in a vehicle in an F4 tornado is one of the worst places to be, and I had just told my sister to drive when I knew there was a tornado imminent. I breathed a sigh of relief when I saw her car pull up, a big sigh. True to form my sister instead of leaving went through the drive through and got her barbecue and even brought me a glass of sweet tea. We had watched in horror as the live video showed Tuscaloosa being hit and the debris that was being lifted in the air, knowing that people’s lives were being lost as we watched. My step son’s video from his condominium, showed the tornado being broadcast live on tv, and you could also see the funnel through his window in the same video. It was hours before we knew our loved ones had made it through. No words can express the relief of learning your people are ok, and no words can adequately express the sadness knowing that many people were about to find out that their loved ones did not survive.
As the news feeds began to pour in, we began to see streets and areas of towns we knew and loved being so demolished that they were unrecognizable. The Full Moon barbecue in Tuscaloosa my sister had been at minutes earlier was destroyed and there was no sign of its employees at this point. My heart broke. Sometime later the Full Moon’s walk-in cooler would be located and all of those inside the restaurant had taken shelter inside the cooler’s strong steel and had survived. But the cooler had been picked up by the tornado and carried some distance before it landed. My stepson walked out of his condominium and although his unit was undamaged, just outside the entrance gates lay the rubble that was once neighborhoods. Truly death and destruction were at his doorsteps. Small towns that are the heart and soul of the culture in our state had also taken hits, too many to name, but notably Cullman and Hackleburg. We all watched live as the tornado tore through downtown Cullman, it’s beautiful downtown area would be forever changed. The town of Hackleburg in Northwest Alabama was hit by an F5 tornado and many lost their lives. Jasper and Cordova, the towns of my childhood had been hit in the morning by tornados and that afternoon were hit again. My friend Jeff Roberts a photographer for the Birmingham News was caught in the storm, the images he caught would be seen around the Country and the world. http://media.al.com/archiblog/photo/10897274-large.jpg. I know Jeff and I know the person he is.
I cannot imagine the turmoil his heart endured as he tried to do his job of recording the pain and the suffering, but as a man his desire to step in and help those in need. The image Jeff caught of Faye Hyde with her grandchildren huddled close to her on top of a mattress amidst the piles of debris and rubble would become an icon for Alabama as it began the long path to recovery. Night fell on April 27, 2011, the death was coming to an end but the suffering was just beginning.
A year passes and the sun rose on April 27, 2012. As the sun rose, a group of cyclists gathered for another day of riding through the Heartland of Alabama and the areas affected by last year’s storms. Bo Jackson, Heisman Trophy winner and the greatest athlete to come out of Auburn University and one of the greatest athletes of all time, put together a fundraiser to raise a million dollars to help rebuild the areas affected by the April 27 tornados. The favorite son of Auburn was coming home to help rebuild the State he loved. As I said in any good novel with villains, there has to be heroes. The story the April 27 tornados wrote, has them. Just as it had its innocent victims, it had its heroes in the local folks coming together to dig survivors and deceased out of the rubble that had been their neighbor’s homes. In Alabama, it is often that a First Responder is a neighbor, maybe even a neighbor you have never even spoken to that rescues you and offers aid to those who need it. If you are ever unfortunate enough to be in a disaster of this magnitude, you should pray that there are men in your community who run a scouting program. Scouting still teaches values, but it also teaches disaster preparedness and first aid. These adults and young men are assets to any community where they reside and one day they may save your life or mine. There were also villains in this story, looting took place in the days following the storm. Deadly force was threatened and that threat subsided. There were also neighbors we never knew we had that came to offer whatever help they could. Churches, schools, even towns came in to offer aid, some from nearby communities, some from other states. This has been a year of seeing university students from other parts of the Country forego the typical spring break to come to the towns of Alabama and help rebuild. If you have any doubts about the young people of this Country, look no further than Alabama post April 27 to see that despite what we see on the nightly news, America still has the greatest young people of any place on earth.
Alabama is a State that is known for its fanatical excesses when it comes to college football, and a State that has seen more than its share of misplaced hatred when it comes to issues of race. But Alabama has come together in the past year. Alabama didn’t wait on FEMA to solve its problems. Neighbors grabbed chainsaws, shovels and hammers and Alabama set about the work of rebuilding Alabama. Too often we are embarrassed by the actions of some our fellow residents here, but on this anniversary day of one of the worst national disasters in our Country’s history that tore our State apart, Alabamians should hold their heads high and look at what has been done in the year since the 2011 tragedy. There is still work to be done. But the same commitment that brought the State to this level of recovery will see it through to completion. Today is also the day, that we as Alabamians take this opportunity to say our words can never express the gratitude we have for those who came in and selflessly offered your time, your hard work and your financial aid to help us begin to rebuild what was taken away a year ago today. In a State where Auburn’s Bo Jackson can ride a bike for 300 miles to raise a million dollars to aid tornado victims and finish his journey in Tuscaloosa, home to The University of Alabama and be welcomed with open arms, anything is possible.