6 years. How has it been 6 years already? I’m sitting on my couch with Stanley, our cat, trying to distract me with his cuteness, and it makes me think about how much has changed. Six years ago, Cliff and I were huddled in his apartment bathroom wondering what was going on outside. We knew it was bad, but had no possible way to fully grasp the horror.
For days leading up to April 27, meteorologists were predicting a severe weather outbreak. Tornadoes were not just predicted, there was absolute certainty violent, long-track tornadoes would occur throughout the state. So many tornadoes. The monster that tore through our beloved Tuscaloosa was particularly brutal. Once it wiped portions of our vibrant college town off the map, it barreled through the rest of the state, and even decimated Ringgold, GA. Tuscaloosa wasn’t enough for the beast, but try to wrap your head around the fact it was just one of dozens of other beasts that day.
Storms rolled through in the early morning hours on April 27, and skies cleared by mid-morning. While Cliff and I were walking to class, I remember thinking that the beautiful sunshine was a horrible sight on this particular day. All it would do would add fuel to the unstable atmosphere. I checked social media throughout the morning, and classes were finally dismissed when storms began to fire up in Mississippi. Cliff and I decided we would ride out the day at his apartment, and we prepared as well as we could. I remember stopping for Subway sandwiches on our way to his apartment, and splurging on a chocolate chip cookie. I remember eating lunch on his couch when the first tornado warning was issued for Cullman in north Alabama (where my grandparents lived). I have vivid memories of putting pillows and blankets in his bathroom, and positioning our pet carrier to get Paco inside quickly. Hours passed as storms fired up around the state, and there were almost too many to count.
Then, the situation started to deteriorate in our little corner of Alabama. Dad called from Atlanta. He was watching James Spann on ABC 33/40 from his computer, and told me it was time for Cliff and I to take shelter. He was calm, but purposeful. I told him we would, and could feel my nerves start to kick into gear. We put Paco in his carrier, placed him in the bathroom, and stood in the bathroom doorway watching coverage on TV until the cable went out. It was an omen. We shut the door to the bathroom, I crawled in the bathtub with the carrier and Cliff next to us (he didn’t want to get in until he absolutely had to), and turned on the radio. James Spann’s voice has always been calming, so the waiver in his throat was telling. As soon as he said it was a “wedge tornado,” I knew this wasn’t a drill. Wedge tornadoes are what you find in the Midwest, not the Southeast. Those are the most powerful, the most vicious.
My parents called again; this time, my mom was on the phone. They were both watching the Tuscaloosa “tower cam” footage from Atlanta. Mom kept telling the tornado to “go back up in the sky.” They could see everything and they knew it wouldn’t lift into the clouds, but maintained their brave face despite that reality, for which I will always be grateful. Not knowing for sure what specific streets were in the direct path, we prepared for the worst. I told Mom and Dad I loved them, and kept talking about what they were seeing. We could feel the barometric pressure drop, saw the power blink, and even Paco seemed to cower. I was shaking, and Cliff had a seriousness about him I had never seen.
After what felt like an eternity, it passed. News coverage continued to follow the storm as it barreled towards Birmingham, a major metropolitan area. The devastation in Tuscaloosa was not immediately evident, but a few minutes later, the texts and alerts started to roll in. Information was spotty, though, and Comcast had taken a direct hit, so we knew we weren’t going to see anything on television anytime soon. At that time, Cliff had a BlackBerry, and we tried to decipher tiny pictures of the devastation on his phone. We were lucky to have power (his complex buried their power lines), and were obviously grateful to be alive, but we didn’t know the extent of the damage, casualties, possible fatalities, or really anything.
We waited an hour, and I decided I wanted to check on my apartment. Cliff and I drove to the complex, and could tell the power was out everywhere. My complex was about a quarter mile from the center of the tornado’s track. Understanding I would be staying with Cliff for a while, I packed up some of my belongings, and we got back in his car. While taking the long route back to his apartment, we tried to get as close as we could to the part of town that took a direct hit. We couldn't see much, but when we came upon downed trees, and saw pieces of metal dangling from power lines in the distance, we knew it must be bad. Minutes later, I got a call from my close friend, Amy, whose first words were,“Are you ok?!” She had just heard about the twister from Atlanta, and heard her good friend’s home had taken a direct hit. We talked for a few minutes and she made the swift decision to drive to Tuscaloosa as soon as she was able. We offered her a place to stay, and welcomed the thought of having company…others to share whatever the next days and weeks would bring. I spoke with my grandparents in north Alabama, and then Cliff and I settled in for the night. It was incredibly eerie. We knew places held dear in our hearts, places where some of our best college memories were made were gone. Just like that. In a college town, you feel invincible. And, the town feels like the safest space in the world. Honestly, there are still no words to describe what we were feeling.
The next day provided the terrible clarity that we sought, but dreaded. Cliff and I, along with our friend, Anita, drove to campus and accessed our academic building. There we found no power, but it did provide internet, so we updated our Facebook accounts to let people know we were safe. It was then that we saw the update. Classes were cancelled for the rest of the semester, and graduation was postponed until August. Boom. My time in Tuscaloosa ended. Six years of memories, undergraduate studies, graduate studies…it was done. And I didn’t feel like I had the chance to say a proper goodbye. What was happening felt unprecedented. What was even more strange was wondering how much of the outside world knew what we were going through? We walked the halls before beginning the trek to the damaged area on foot. Prior to leaving the building, we found one of our professors in her office, having spent the night instead of going home. Talk about eerie.
It took several minutes to walk to the swath of damage, which was almost a mile wide in places. The sky was a brilliant blue, and the sun shined down on us like nothing had happened. We turned a corner, and there was the devastation. Historic trees mangled, businesses gone, homes torn apart, power lines draping the streets like the strings that control a marionette puppet. There was a smell in the air…like gas, electricity, musty water, and rotting things (I didn’t want to think about what that was). Others walked around like we did, and what struck me was how quiet these groups of people were. We were like zombies. Somber, confused, upset, but all in whatever this new reality was together.
In the coming days, the President of the United States visited, we saw Jim Cantore and Brian Williams on the steps of what used to be homes, Amy stayed with us, and our friend, Matt, crashed at Cliff’s place, too. We learned 44 people died, just in Tuscaloosa alone. We helped with the clean up efforts, and tried to aid Amy’s friend by salvaging what we could of their belongings. Mom and Dad visited, and I started packing up my apartment to move home. Everything really did change. Despite the sadness, I witnessed the best in people over the few weeks I was there to close that chapter. Auburn fans drove around and passed out water to us. Strangers helped each other as much as they could. I said goodbye to one of my students who had taken my public speaking class that semester, when I saw him wandering the streets with what was left of his belongings.
I was afraid to go home because I wasn’t sure what it would feel like to see people on a daily basis that had not experienced the same trauma. And, at first, it was hard. Normal interactions felt trite. Others couldn’t understand what we had lived through, and I couldn’t blame them. But, it was a reality for us. No, the tornado did not hit campus…but it hit practically everything else. No, my apartment was fine, but my emotions weren’t. It was surreal for a very long time. In many respects, it still is.
Each year, I watch videos on YouTube of the tornado coverage that day. The years do pass, and the pain does subside, but it will never completely heal. I think that’s a good thing. I believe that the most important hurt heals, but the pang of emotion we feel when we even think of that date means it impacted us. When I watch the videos, I’m reminded of a terrible, but utterly important time in our lives.
Six years later, I’m married to Cliff. Our cat, Paco, died from a rare and terminal illness a few years after the tornado. The professor we saw in Reese Phifer the day after the tornado has since passed away. Our friend, Matt, who crashed in Cliff’s apartment for a night after the twister, has since died. My grandparents have died, and our trips to Tuscaloosa have become less frequent. So much has happened in six years. Tuscaloosa has rebounded, and the new groups of students have no line of demarcation to understand the old versus the new. Their memories are just as important, though, and it proves that life really is cyclical. May the city, and state, never experience such devastation again.
April 27, 2011. We will never forget.