Friday, April 27, 2012

Day 17: One Year's Passing

It was one year ago today.  I came home after work, I sat down on the couch, and the news reports started coming in via the Internet.  First I saw a strange picture.  It was of an intersection on a road I had travelled thousands of times over the preceding decade.  When I saw it, I knew immediately that it was a picture of tornado damage.  When I saw it, I was first confused about what direction the picture was taken from, because the landmarks were all missing.  I had to look really close and blink many times to make things make sense.  My brain couldn't at first comprehend the destruction.

Even today, there are places where when I drive down familiar roads in Tuscaloosa the landmarks drop away, and a moment of panicked cognitive dissonance takes hold as I try to grasp how I've gone from perfectly familiar to perfectly barren and unfamiliar without knowing it. 

The state of Alabama is second only to the famed "tornado alley" in terms of the annual number of tornado events.  In Alabama, you don't really live in fear of such events, because you can't function if you do (much like earthquakes in California, I'd imagine).  Some of my earliest memories involve hunkering down with my family in the interior hallways of our house as storms likely to produce tornados pass overhead.  Every child in school is well-versed and drilled in what must be done should a tornado come during school hours. 

In fact, the only reason why their aren't shows on Discovery Channel about tornado hunters in Alabama is because it's usually extremely difficult to get good footage of said tornados.  They're often rain-wrapped, obscured by dense vegetation, and/or dipping in and out from behind the landscape.

(Incidentally, the inability to really visually "track" a tornado (like you can on the American plains) is what makes Alabama tornado's so much more deadly to chase.  Most professionals won't do it.)

Most tornado in Alabama ultimately don't do much damage because they either aren't very big, or aren't on the ground for very long,  or only strike extremely sparsely populated areas, or any combination of the three.  It's common for Alabamans to be blase and under-whelmed by tornado sightings. 

The April 27th tornado was different, in all the worst ways.


This tornado stayed on the ground for over 50 miles; leaving a visually traceable track of devastation across one of the densest population areas in the state.  It bisected the city of Tuscaloosa and then made a bee line for the suburbs of Birmingham where it exacted its toll destroying many more houses (including my cousin and her husband's) and killing more people along the way.  It's full documented path both on and off the ground can be seen here.

At it's widest point, in the center of one of the poorest areas in Tuscaloosa, its devastation was a mile wide.   

In the city of Tuscaloosa alone the damage was unimaginable.  The tornado blessedly skirted the campus of the University of Alabama, but still took the lives of 6 of her students and 3 other college students from the community colleges in town.  The total loss of life stands at 64, according to official reports, with over 1500 people being injured and thousands of homes destroyed or rendered unliveable, in the city of Tuscaloosa alone.

The bodies tossed on top of the town mall have been removed, many businesses are in the process of rebuilding, the dead are buried, but the scars remain.  

Here are some comparative photographs of before and after Tuscaloosa:  Satellite Images  

What else remains, however, is a renewal.  What the storm could not tear asunder was the spirit of the place, the heart of the community and its people; both in Tuscaloosa, and across the state as a whole.

The grand magnitude of the loss and suffering bears remembering today, and I'll be using today's anniversary to focus on the things that are important in life, and the blessings we have.

On a personal note, when I left Tuscaloosa five years ago, I was sick and tired of the place.  After living their most of the year for more than eight years I was more than done with it.  But when I saw it being ripped apart, when I saw it's people suffer, when I saw the familiar turned to rubble, I wept and I still weep thinking of it.  Sitting in Wise, Va, totally unable to help except for collecting supplies from our church to send to Alabama, I never felt less at home.  The tornado taught me one thing, Tuscaloosa will always be one of the places I call home; it'll always be dear to my heart.  I miss the Tuscaloosa I knew that is gone, in part, but I can't wait to know the Tuscaloosa that is rising anew.  Roll Tide!    


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