The Long Road to Recovery in Tuscaloosa

View from the roof of Alberta Baptist Church after the April 27, 2011, storm

View from the roof of Alberta Baptist Church after the April 27, 2011, storm

On April 27, 2011, the Tuscaloosa area was hit by a massive tornado, spanning more than a mile and a half and taking the lives of 64 people across the region.

As we look back over the three years since that devastating day, some of our Sain associates remember their experiences and salute the recovery efforts. The road to recovery is a long and laborious one, but we are pleased to be able to celebrate with our neighbors as progress is made.

Charles Cochran, Traffic Designer
I was in the last semester of my undergraduate degree in April 2011. When the tornado hit, I was in my rental house in the Forest Lake neighborhood with my roommates and girlfriend. We were watching a movie when I noticed the weather change very quickly. The center of the tornado was only a few blocks away. We crowded in our hallway and soon heard debris hitting every side of our house.

Two of the three large oak trees in our yard fell, one on the roof directly above the hallway where we took shelter. Thankfully, we had a very high attic that kept the tree from coming down into the hallway. The air pressure was changing dramatically, our ears were popping, and insulation from the attic was raining down out of the vents. It was a very surreal couple of minutes. When it passed, we went outside to survey the damage – we all had damage to our cars, but we realized quickly how fortunate we were. Just three blocks away, the tornado had leveled homes down to the concrete foundations.

What I will remember most from that day is the near-instantaneous response from everyone in our neighborhood. Within 30 after the storm, men with chainsaws were walking around the neighborhood and offering to help cut downed trees. Members from the local church were handing out water and offering shelter for those in need. An outpouring of support from around the nation soon followed.

We moved out of our rental house immediately, as it was unsafe to enter. With classes cancelled and graduation postponed, I stayed in Tuscaloosa for a couple of days and helped with the cleanup efforts. After that summer I returned to Tuscaloosa to start graduate school and moved two houses down from my old place. They didn’t start repairs on my old house until almost a year later. The progress made in the rest of my neighborhood was very sporadic. Some houses were rebuilt just months after the tornado, but there are many lots there still with nothing but a foundation.

The tornado was an absolutely horrible catastrophe, but it brought out the best in the community and it opened up a lot possibilities for new development in the area. Mayor Walt Maddox and the city engineers did an exemplary job, not only in their crisis management in the days immediately following the tornado, but also in their vision for rebuilding and redeveloping the City. A lot of progress has been made, but there is still a tremendous amount of work to do.

Laura Beth Yates, Traffic Designer
I had been in Birmingham with the student chapter of the Institute of Transportation Engineers (ITE) the morning of April 27. Since we had heard there would be bad weather later that afternoon, we cut our trip short and headed back to Tuscaloosa early. It was such a pretty spring day that it was hard to believe bad weather could be coming later.

I was in one of the engineering buildings later that day when the storm arrived. The other students and I headed to the basement for shelter. When we finally ventured outside and saw that everything was over, I began walking back to the house on 12th Street that I shared with my brother.

I remember it being strangely calm outside as I walked back to my house. I saw one large tree that had been uprooted, but there was no other major damage on campus. It had gone back to being a pretty spring day. One thing I think I’ll always remember was hearing sirens coming from the direction of 15th Street as I walked across campus. It was a very eerie sound. I didn’t know yet how bad it was, but that sound was a good indication. I got back to my house and saw that it was undamaged, but went inside and realized there was no power.

I called my fiancé (now husband), Justin, who is a police officer for the city of Tuscaloosa. He sounded very upset and kept repeating, “It’s bad. It’s really bad.” At that point I started to realize how bad the storm had been. But I didn’t know that if the tornado had come just half a mile further north, my house would probably have been destroyed.

I was supposed to go to Sain Associates the next morning for the first day of my internship, but after the storm I didn’t know if they would still want me to come. I headed up there anyway, but had a difficult time getting there because the traffic was so thick. It was a very interesting start to my first engineering job!

A couple of weeks later as I was driving back to Tuscaloosa in the dark, I missed my turn onto 15th Street from McFarland Boulevard because I didn’t recognize the intersection. I would never have done that before! Everything had changed. It’s hard now to remember what it looked like before. Three years after the storm it is encouraging to see how much rebuilding has taken place.

View from atop Joe's mother's house after the storm

View from atop Joe’s mother’s house after the storm

Joe Moon, IT Network Administrator
I grew up in Cottondale, just outside Tuscaloosa, with my mother who was absolutely terrified of tornadoes. The Alberta City area was my old stomping grounds as a young boy. That’s where we did all our shopping and socializing.

I was at work at Sain on April 27, 2011, and we listened to news reports of a possible tornado developing near Tuscaloosa. As the reporter talked, we could actually see the tornado emerging from the clouds behind him and begin cutting through Tuscaloosa.

The storm moved further north than forecasters projected, passing within 500 feet of my mother’s house in the Altamont subdivision of Alberta City. It was a mixed blessing, I think, that my mother had passed away a few weeks earlier and her house was now vacant. If she had been in the house as the tornado passed through, her fear of storms would probably have caused her to have a heart attack in her house by herself. I’m glad she didn’t have to live through it.

Tuscaloosa is nicknamed the “Druid City” because of all the Druid water oak trees throughout the city, lots of them more than 100 years old. The majority of those trees were destroyed by the storm, and even though the Tuscaloosa city officials are encouraging people to re-plant trees, we’ll never see anything like those trees again in our lifetimes.

The debris and damaged homes have been cleared away, and some houses have been rebuilt or repaired. But Alberta City will never be the same.

For additional updates on the recovery efforts, visit the City of Tuscaloosa’s website.

Sain Associates, Inc., is headquartered in Birmingham, Alabama, with offices in Pulaski, Tennessee and Mandeville, Louisiana. Sain is a site engineering, traffic/transportation engineering and planning and land surveying firm with experience in more than thirty states.

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