Something that can’t be forgotten
A decade after the April 27, 2011, tornado, its scars still rest with those who experienced it.
By Meredith Cummings
Tuscaloosa Mayor Walt Maddox was in the gym at Hillcrest High School coaching his stepson Trey’s basketball team on Dec. 16, 2000. The opposing coach was Alabama’s current secretary of state and University of Alabama graduate, John Merrill, ’90. The two coaches stepped outside to get some air while another parent tagged along to smoke.
Then they saw it: A titan, debris-filled, thunderous tornado hit the nearby Winn-Dixie, destroying it.
They ran back inside and quickly moved the children to a hallway. Maddox draped his body over Trey’s and together they recited the Affirmation of Faith. He quickly flashed back to one of his earliest memories—watching his dad try to find a radio station in a crawl space where he survived a tornado that hit another Tuscaloosa neighborhood, Springbrook.
Maddox was certain that the monster storm he witnessed at Hillcrest was headed straight for them. It missed the school, but it did kill 12 people in Tuscaloosa that day.
It was that experience that shaped him and prepared him to lead the city through a larger, even more deadly tornado later. “It helped me understand fear,” Maddox said recently.
It’s been 10 years this spring since the April 27, 2011, tornado scarred and ravaged Tuscaloosa, killing 53 people and injuring more than 1,500 across the city in its wake. It changed the landscape as well as those who call Tuscaloosa home. Yet the violent, long-track EF-4 tornado, which was over a mile wide, casts a long shadow, even today. Those affected, which included many UA alumni, faculty and staff, walk the fine line between never wanting to forget, and absolutely wanting to forget.
People who lived through it may suffer from PTSD, are averse to bad weather, or are unable to smell natural gas or burning pine needles for the memories that come with them—both saturated the air afterward. Many recalled not knowing where they were just after it hit, even when standing on their own streets. As UA Professor Rick Bragg wrote soon after, the storm even affected “perhaps forever, how we look at the sky.”
It’s been a decade since President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama visited the aftermath. That day, Michelle’s cream-colored top became marred with a dirty, sap-filled tornado paste, from hugging distraught Tuscaloosans who had lost everything.
Ashley Mims’ daughter, UA student Loryn Brown, was killed in the tornado. At home with roommate Danielle Downs, also a UA student, and another friend, Will Stephens, a Stillman student, the house took a direct hit. No one survived.
“The students that are there now may not remember, but they can’t forget 2011,” Mims said. “They can’t be caught off guard. They have to be prepared.” James Fowler, ’11, the outgoing SGA president at the time, and his wife Meg McCrummen Fowler, ’11, served on the UA SGA in 2011. “For those of us who were in Tuscaloosa at the time, it’s something we will carry with us the rest of our lives,” Fowler said.
Comeback of champions
In the immediate hours of shock after the tornado hit, the University pledged its resources, logistical support and planning. As the city of Tuscaloosa healed and moved on, so did the University.
Tuscaloosa built back with the thought that any day, another tornado could ravage the city. It’s hard to describe to hose who weren’t there, in any words or in any language.
Chelsea Thrash Blevins, ’13, a UA student at the time, remembers that when she regained consciousness immediately after the storm, her back was broken and she could not feel her legs. Then she screamed for help. Her spine had been pushed to one side, twisted, like everything the tornado left in its wake. Walking, or any sense of normal, was a faraway memory. She had been thrown from her Charleston Square apartment into a field and landed on debris.
This year, Blevins will celebrate her five-year wedding anniversary, a milestone many of her friends and family did not think she would ever see. Not only did she walk again, she no longer needs help from a walker or cane.
In doing so, she honored the memory of her late sorority sister, Melanie “Nicole” Mixon, who was only two doors down from Thrash when the storm hit. Nicole, the girl who loved her two guinea pigs, named Todd and Copper after characters from her favorite Disney movie “The Fox and the Hound,” would have attended Blevins’ wedding, had she lived.
Blevins now has no physical pain and cannot recall when she last used her cane—she thinks it’s been years—but she keeps it in the car “just in case” because it brings her comfort. The last time she visited Tuscaloosa was 2015. “I haven’t been avoiding Tuscaloosa, but I haven’t gone back in a while,” she said. “I think maybe portions of the city would be hard to visit.”
Maddox recalled a ceremony at Foster Auditorium a few months after the tornado. “I spoke to the parents (of students who died), and it was the worst feeling of inadequacy, because you knew anything that you said, could not even begin to repair the loss that they had in their lives,” Maddox said, adding that the experience made him a better parent.
His son, Eli, 7, was not yet born when the mayor left City Hall on April 27, 2011, and drove, accompanied by Sgt. Chad Palmer and Heather Gray, his administrative assistant, straight down University Boulevard to Alberta. “That’s when I began to see people bleeding, walking toward me,” Maddox said. “It knocked me to my knees. I’ve never seen damage like that. You wish you could bring up that moment when you first saw the destruction and just how overwhelming it was and just how overwhelming it is still, in my mind. But for many in our community there’s no way they can understand unless they lived it, and that’s just part of the human experience.”
For Tuscaloosa and the University, the greatest threat now is the passage of time, and collective hazy memory.
“I think (Eli) has a higher acumen for the threat of severe weather because I’m usually gone or there’s talk of it but, April 27, 2011, has no meaning in his life,” Maddox said. “That’s one of the things we will all have to work very hard is not only not to forget—and to remember what happened—but also be prepared for the future.”
Fowler said the anniversary is a time to remember the UA students who died that day. He named each one of them, with a long pause to choke back emotion.
“Ten years in, we haven’t forgotten them,” he said. “We remember them and honor their lives.”
Former Tuscaloosa City Council President Harrison Taylor, who helped work with UA in the early days, worked tirelessly in the aftermath of the crisis, one reason the city of Tuscaloosa renamed its command center after him. He first knew about the tornado when he heard a neighbor screaming. “There was a lawn mower and all kinds of debris in the air,” he recalls. “It looked like (the tornado) had eyes because it got to 15th Street and it turned. Then we all thought it was going to hit the hospital, but it turned. To be honest with you, I thought we would never come back,” Taylor said.
But Tuscaloosa did.
A community unites and transforms
The city and UA community have rebuilt and transformed.
The UA Acts of Kindness Fund, born out of need after the tornado, has raised more than $2.74 million to date. Almost every college on campus has contributed to recovery efforts over the years in some way.
“I think from the city standpoint, I think we’re done,” Maddox said on the recovery. “We’ve done about all we can do from an investment standpoint, whether that’s transportation infrastructure or economic development. What we have to be careful of is that in the 12.5% of the city that was destroyed that day, it may never reach a point where recovery is achieved. I’ve always, in the past 10 years, been very reluctant to use the words fully recovered because, if your house is destroyed, your business was damaged or you’ve lost a loved one, is there ever really a point of recovery?”
There is no real common thread among people who were at the University in 2011. Each person has their own story to tell. Yet in each story, community spirit shines.
Twelve percent of Tuscaloosa was destroyed that day. Even though the city lost 85% of its heavy equipment, 17% of police assets, a fire station and four other city facilities, it continued to provide services to almost 90% of the city following the tornado, and never borrowed money or raised taxes. It never missed a payroll, never missed paying bills, and the city continued to function. The UA campus—which narrowly avoided damage—was able to help the city move forward.
“Strangers and people who didn’t know each other are now connected,” Fowler said, as he recalled feeding relief workers and community members through the Greek Relief program, a recovery effort that not only prepared more than 52,000 hot meals in the aftermath of the storm, but also raised more than $220,000.
“To see the students of different ages, backgrounds, different places in life all come together … it changed the way you look at community, both the Tuscaloosa community and the University community. The memories are of those students (who died) but also the experience of coming together afterward and uniting.”
Blevins agreed, recalling the “completely random community of people coming together,” including two strangers, Susan and Derek DeBriun, who both graduated from UA in 2011 with master’s degrees. They were newlyweds, they quickly grabbed supplies on hand—including new towels that were wedding gifts—and ran outside to help. Blevins also recalled a man in a white pickup truck who took her to Mayer Electric Supply, which became a triage center after the tornado. She never saw him again. She ultimately made it to DCH, where she was taken by ambulance to UAB.
University of Alabama Journalism and Creative Media Senior Instructor Andy Grace, ’01, and his wife, Rashmi, were at home in the Forest Lake neighborhood, which took a direct hit from the tornado. Like Maddox, it was the second deadly tornado Grace. He ultimately created a project called “After The Storm,” an interactive documentary, nominated for a 2015 Emmy Award.
He and Rashmi were involved in the Tuscaloosa Forward initiative, a collaboration by citizens and the city of Tuscaloosa to guide recovery after the tornado.
“Everyone in the city believed we were on the precipice of enacting some meaningful change,” Grace said, lamenting that many long-term plans he wished for did not happen. “All of these things felt incredibly exciting to me. Watching this incredible moment of democracy was so inspiring and so exciting. To hear people give visions of what they wanted in their community. I think of the positivity that came after.”
Alumni who graduated and moved on all mentioned the tug of what was, for many, a temporary home, and how they were reluctant to leave because of the bonds formed after the tornado.
Grace summed it up: If there was a tornado every day, our sense of community would continue to thrive.
“If every moment were this tragedy, we would all only be kind to one another,” he said. “We would all only be generous. We would all only seek justice. We would all only be connected to one another.”
Tuscaloosa forward, with new perspective.
Like many tornado survivors, Blevins no longer sweats the small stuff. “I kind of tend to over-catastrophize things,” she said, but added that the tornado has helped her to step back, take a breath and realize that small problems are just that—small. “Things could be so much worse. Having gone through losing everything and being hurt the way I was, I try to reflect.”
For Blevins, the transformation has been physical and mental. There are still spots on the left side of her body where she has no feeling. She can’t run, climb stairs or play volleyball anymore. She struggles to keep up with the walking pace of most people. She gets stares when she uses handicapped parking because her injuries are not obvious. “When I was relearning to walk, I never quite got everything back,” she said. “I just had to learn to do things differently.”
Mims recently sent daughter Anna off to Auburn University. Her other daughter, Holly—who was 10 at the time of the tornado—arrived at UA in fall 2020 as a sophomore. Mims said the choice to send Holly to UA was one of the hardest things she has done, since Tuscaloosa is where Loryn died in the storm. She makes sure both Anna and Holly have helmets at home, and a severe weather plan, something she hopes more students and parents will make a priority. “She’s doing what Loryn couldn’t do,” Mims said. “She’s continuing Loryn’s legacy but also creating her own. I could not let my fear squash her hopes and dreams and aspirations and cancel that out for her.”
Mims said the tornado transformed the way she looks at everything, and forces her to find the good in each situation. “I may not talk about Loryn every day to people because they don’t ask, but she’s on my mind every day,” Mims said. “I miss her more every day. I used to keep up with how many days it had been, then how many months it had been, and now how many years it’s been. When we get to April 27 this year, it will be over 3,600 days that she’s been gone. I have felt every one of those days with every fiber of my body and to the depths of my soul. I miss my child. You don’t get over it. You don’t move on. You don’t forget. But your coping skills get stronger. You always carry this weight. But you built up these muscles to help you carry this weight.”
For Maddox, the tornado prepared him to manage the current COVID-19 crisis, yet he marks the tornado as the most important moment of his time serving the city. “It never leaves me,” he said. “It’s certainly the most seminal moment from my entire time in the city, and I cannot imagine anything ever surpassing that. I don’t ever want to grow cold, or sterile, to those emotional moments. That should drive you. I think about that all the time.”
For Taylor, who once thought Tuscaloosa might never make a comeback, moving ahead is the only choice. “I don’t look back,” he said. “I’m looking forward. My city has come a long way.”
Meredith Cummings, ’94, MA ’96, is a senior instructor in the Department of Journalism and Creative Media at The University of Alabama. In 2011, both she and Alabama Alumni Magazine Editor Lydia Seabol Avant lived in a neighborhood that was hard hit by that EF-4 tornado.