Two years ago today, so much of the Southeast, but especially Tuscaloosa, was destroyed by a chain of tornadoes that went right through the heart of the town. Your Daily Bama Blog host, Brett Hudson, was a freshman at UA at the time. Here is my story of the tornadoes. Enjoy, and recollect, because there are so many that lost a loved one on this day.
It was a normal Wednesday: I woke up that morning just as I normally do, walking around piles of dirty clothes on the floor, getting ready for my classes for that day. Wednesdays that semester were not fun for me. I had five classes stretching from 9 a.m. to 4:15 p.m. But, I just went through it all like always, class to class to class, only focused on class (and maybe the next home baseball game). I knew that there were some pretty bad storms heading our way, but I didn’t think much of it. One of my professors even took time out of his lecture (a rarity for this man, as he values every second of allotted class time as if his life depends on it) and told us that these storms were very serious and that we needed to be extremely careful that night.
Fast forwarding to the chaos, I was in my final class of the day, an American history class taught by Chuck Clark, who to this day is one of my favorite professors here at the University. Everyone in the class was watching the weather. Everyone had a laptop or a smart phone out, constantly checking it. Before class started, the professor reminded us that the building we were in, ten Hoor, was built as the campus bomb shelter and that if anything were to happen, we would be safe here. But when the campus-wide email saying that classes were cancelled for the day and the tornado sirens started going off, I decided to just make the quick walk back to my dorm.
I did just that, getting back and seeing my roommate Charley a little out of it. He was telling me, “Dude, this is bad.” Charley lived in north Alabama for a very long time and knew what kind of damage tornadoes could do. But it wasn’t confirmed that this storm was producing tornadoes, so I still wasn’t too worried. I even went with a friend from down the hall to get dinner to-go at the closest dining hall, then returned. While in the dining hall, it started raining. Badly. Being from Gulf Shores, Alabama, a beach town prone to hurricanes, I was used to seeing hard rains in hurricanes. And let me say this, that rain rivaled hurricanes.
I was a little more cautious of the storms after that, but I didn’t begin to really worry until I was in that same friend’s room after dinner. This shows you how worried I was, because everyone else was in the hallway for safety. I was looking out the window while the others were watching TV, and in the distance I could see an Alabama flag on the top of a construction crane. It was whipping around in circles. Fast. That was my sign. I told everyone in the room to get into the hallway and that was where we stayed for a while.
There were some of our dormmates that were brave enough to look out the door every now and then. They would report back, “It’s raining hard out there,” or, “It’s really windy,” for a while. They did this several times, almost like clock work. I grew to be mundane, almost boring.
Then it turned on a dime. “Oh my God! That thing is huge! Holy s!!!” That ‘thing’ was the tornado that would soon destroy so much of Tuscaloosa.
The aftermath was just as bad as every photo and flyover video you have ever seen, and maybe worse. The week that followed was rough, at the very least. I saw my friends go back to their respective hometowns in such a rushed and unceremonious manner. I was seeing grown men and women with full families eating at the on-campus dining halls, nothing more than a glorified cafeteria, because that was the only place they could get a decent meal.
I left Tuscaloosa for the weekend in search of power, running water and stability in general for a day or two and found that refuge in a tiny town in Georgia. When I returned, the scene was very much the same one that I left. Walking down the streets of Tuscaloosa was made difficult both by debris and personal items – Alabama Crimson Tide momentos, family pictures, sporting equipment – in the way of every footpath.
My dad took the time off work to come to Tuscaloosa and help me move out of my freshman dorm room to my first summer internship for The Decatur Daily just a few hours north of Tuscaloosa. He came from Gulf Shores to Tuscaloosa the way he alwys has – I-65 North to Montgomery and then take Highway 82 into Tuscaloosa until it turns into McFarland Boulevard, the center of Tuscaloosa.
He had no idea what he was getting into.
He made an observation that most of us made: you could see so much more of Tuscaloosa from McFarland than before, such as the DCH Hospital and Bryant-Denny Stadium. Why? “There used to be houses and stuff there,” Dad said.
And he’s right. Krispy Kreme, Full Moon BBQ, a car repair shop, Hokkaido (a popular Japanese grill), and countless houses: all gone. He said it looked as if a 5- or more-mile wide plow just drove through and took with it this large section of Tuscaloosa. And he’s right again.
He was the only thing that was right. The world had been shattered for us.
“That’s the worst thing I’ve ever had to do,” I told my mom as I drove away from the scene. The scene is 31 Beverly Street in Tuscaloosa, a small house in a decent neighborhood about a block away from the DCH Hospital and another three or four from the heart of UA’s campus.
On that day, April 27th, 2012, I went to 31 Beverly Street for The Decatur Daily to cover a ceremony, initiated and held nearly entirely by three sets of parents that lost their children at 31 Beverly Street one year ago on that day, all three college students in Tuscaloosa. And all three from north Alabama.
Ardmore High School head football coach Shannon Brown was there with his wife to remember their daughter, Loryn. Loryn was living with Danielle Downs and Will Stevens, both from nearby Priceville, Ala.
I’m dreading this day from weeks away. I don’t want to go through the vivid memories of this day: the children’s rooms being reduced to shambles, those that were now homeless aimlessly wandering around looking for nothing, the tears hitting the ground as quickly as the rain did. And I didn’t lose anyone in the tornado, especially my own child.
I drive up to the house and I know it’s the right place immediately: houndstooth ribbons are everywhere around a house, as are nicely-dressed people and a set-up for a microphone.
I park nearby the house, and step up to the ceremony. A nice lady sees me coming up and asks who I am, and when she finds I’m with the newspaper, she hugs me and invites me to a little breakfast spread. I look over and see minis from Chic-Fil-A and some mini-muffins, so I decide to be nice and take my portion.
Those 30 seconds turned into a minute, then two, then five. I was standing motionless at the spread. And not eating: I couldn’t eat anymore, as I noticed something. This wasn’t a table. It had a knob.
“That’s the door to the old house,” a family member of Loryn’s walks up and tells me. She explains one of the mothers of the three children couldn’t get herself to throw it away and decided to use it at the ceremony.
Now I live about a mile down the street from that house, in an apartment complex that is close to Baumhower’s Wings restaurant and the Alabama softball field. Every time I go home, from campus, from work, whatever, I look down that street as I pass by and reflect. Remember. And never forget.
Two years later, things still don’t feel right. The shopping complex that used to be filled with a Hobby Lobby and Chuck-E-Cheese’s is just now being replaced, by what looks to be an impressive apartment complex for students. The replacement Full Moon BBQ is across McFarland from the original location
I still wear my t-shirt. My dad and I stopped at the local Chic-Fil-A for some food before we left Tuscaloosa for my summer internship, and there were some young ladies selling T-Town Never Down t-shirts. The best $15 I’ve ever spent.
My Facebook page and high school diploma may say Gulf Shores, Ala., but Tuscaloosa is my home. The people of the city and the city itself have proven that the great town that was here before the storm is coming back better after it.
T-Town, Never Down.