Before sunrise the tornado sirens blasted throughout the local communities to warn of a line of approaching thunderstorms with winds in excess of 70 mph (some areas in excess of 100 mph). Preston was already awake and in our room (that was not planned but a result of him still not really sleeping through the night). Not in the mood to chance it, Steve went upstairs to drag a sleeping Bennett out of bed and bring her downstairs. The storm quickly blew through Birmingham but left a path of damage that would disrupt everyone's normal routine for several days.
Most roads in the Birmingham area were blocked by debris and downed power lines (including Highway 280). Steve's office along with almost 250,000 residents lost power. Traffic was a nightmare! By midmorning, without power or phones, Steve's office sent home those that could make it to work. Since the really bad storms were not forecasted to arrive until later in the day, schools decided to let out half day (Bennett's was actually canceled that morning for the entire day), and most businesses closed early to allow people to get home to their "safe spot."
The storms had started in Arkansas days before and were barreling their way east creating destruction along the way in Louisiana and Mississippi. With technology the way it is now, our weathermen were predicting strong straight line winds as well as many tornadoes. Tuscaloosa being one of the more westerly placed cities was the first to bear the brunt of the storm. It was headed right towards the campus (where our niece, Maria, attends college), so we were all concerned for her safety. We were watching the coverage on TV and watched as several tornadoes touched down and ripped through town. With several stationery cameras placed around Tuscaloosa, and storm chasers trying to catch the best visual....we watched the whole thing unfold right before our eyes. The tornado took up the entire TV screen and we could see the debris getting sucked up into the tornado and blown around. It was just awful and we were dumbstruck watching it.
Thankfully, Maria was fine and was able to text us almost immediately afterward. However, much of Tuscaloosa was not, and many people have lost their lives, their homes and all of their possessions. Here are several photos taken by our photographer friend, Lindsey Smith, who resides and works in Tuscaloosa. Also below is a "before" and then an "after" photo of an area on 15th Street, where the tornado did the majority of its destruction in Tuscaloosa.
The first video shows the monster storm approach the city of Tuscaloosa and the heart of its residential area (foul language warning from two UA students who were chasing the tornado).
The second video shows the tornado exiting the heavily populated 15th Street area (where many off campus students and faculty live, shop and eat) and approaching Alberta City.
(Steve is typing this)....The stormed roared northeast as an EF4 (at least) and destroyed everything in it's path. We huddled in our basement with friends as the storm approached Birmingham. It was chilling seeing live shots of downtown Birmingham with a 1.5 mile wide tornado in the background (see photo below taken from the UAB Hospital helipad of the tornado just north of downtown Birmingham). The tornado was on the ground for over 80 miles and passed about 8 miles north of our house in Homewood. The remainder of the night was spent watching the news reports of the damage, reading Facebook, and trying to find out if everyone we knew was accounted for. It didn't take long to determine that it would be a long recovery for many places in Alabama.
The following day we found debris from who knows where scattered all over our yard (shards of wood stuck in the grass, roof shingles, insulation, paper, toy parts, etc) which was a common occurrence all over the state. I can never remember that happening before. The damage was so devastating and covered such a large area that it was just difficult for most communities to determine where to start picking up the pieces.
On Saturday, I joined about 10 other members of Trinity in an early response effort in the small town of Pleasant Grove, AL. We arrived at the local Methodist Church around 7:30 am with a goal to just help in any way we could. Relief efforts were not very well organized and access was extremely limited due to the recovery efforts of first responders. The first priority was to help the minister locate the remainder of the congregation that had not been accounted for (2.5 days after the storm). We set out with our GPS (with no land marks or street signs, this was a must) to locate and hopefully talk to approximately a dozen families in all to determine/prioritize any needs. Luckily we were able to locate the families unaccounted for and spoke to all of them (or spoke to someone that had spoken to them). The obvious immediate need for most was just to have someone to talk to.
One kind lady had lived in the community her entire life and just simply broke down while we talked and looked over the devastation surrounding her neighborhood while her home had minor damage. I was wearing an Alabama hat and she wore an Auburn T-shirt. We spoke for about 10 minutes and all she could think about was her neighbors that lost everything. As we said our goodbyes and exchanged hugs she stopped me, eager for one last word, and said "I've just got to say War Eagle!" ...It didn't feel right to respond as I normally would so I just had to let her end on that note.
Soon after, first responders blocked vehicle access across most of the city so we were forced to walk back to the church to do what we could. Our path took us through what must have been the direct path of the storm. The damage in this area was about 1/2 mile wide and extended as far as the eye could see. Here are a few pictures of that journey.
As you can see, the devastation is just awful. It will take months to clear the debris and wreckage, and years before everything can be rebuilt. However, the spirit of those Alabama residents and business owners that suffered major damage has not been destroyed. I am confident that with the help from many (we both plan to do more volunteering in the coming weeks and months), our beloved state will recover from this.