Originally posted to Odyssey, April 27, 2017
It’s a day I can remember better than yesterday. It feels like it all happened just a minute ago: black skies, piercing sirens, air heavy and warm, soaking up all our apprehension and fear, ready to explode. But most of all, I remember the silence. We knew it wasn’t going to be a typical Wednesday. James Spann had been keeping us updated all day, and we watched tornadoes tearing apart other towns across Alabama, praying it wouldn’t be ours that was next.
We were wrong.
It was like something out of a movie.The wind had picked up; our monstrous oak trees were swaying furiously, trying to run without legs; the sirens blared. We dashed to our basement, scrambling to try to get our dog, Bo, to come down too. When he wouldn’t, we had to put him in the bathroom and hope he’d be OK. Suddenly, there was banging on our side door–our neighbors and their baby. No basement. About to put the baby in the dryer to keep him safe. Do you have room for three more? Of course. Now there were eight in the basement, my mom’s laptop streaming James Spann on the news. He said for us to get to our safe space, put helmets on, and stay put. Then came the sky-cam.
I have never felt fear that swift or deep, sinking from the pit of my stomach into my bones, weighing me down like the air outside our paper house.
A swirling mass of indifferent destruction was racing straight towards us, blotting out the sky. “It’s coming down McFarland Boulevard,” James Spann says, jacket off, sleeves rolled up, serious. ” It looks like it’s headed for the hospital and the University–”
The stream cut out. So did the power. The next thing we hear is a swirling thunder, a monster train right outside our door, earthquakes, shaking. Short breaths. Prayer. I hope Bo is OK. I hope the helmet holds. This could be it. Everything’s gonna be gone. How long can this year last?
In reality, it was probably only 12 seconds. The whirling stopped. We all looked at each other, checking to make sure no one was hurt. My dad went to open the door, and I went to go too but my mom stopped me. I didn’t know it then, but she was stopping me in case there was sky on the other side of that door, not a roof. He opened the door. For an hour, silence. Then “It’s still here.”
We crept out of the basement, ants leaving their tunnel, seeing the light for the first time. Everyone breathed a sigh of relief. The walls were still there, nothing seemed to be damaged. We opened the front door. Our relief was killed with the first sight of total destruction.
I had never been able to see the full sky from our yard before, nor had I been able to see the houses on the back of the neighborhood. All our monstrous, comforting, beautiful oak trees were leveled, taking more than a few houses with them. Concrete permanently joined with tree roots was ripped up, like a giant had just reached down scooped out a piece of our yard. We were all in shock. There was no getting out. All the cars were either totaled or blocked in by trees. We looked around and saw our neighbors standing out in their yards, unhurt, relieved, silent.
The next few hours blended together. We climbed our way out of our neighborhood, navigating over and under those monster tree trunks, watching for broken glass and downed power lines. We made it to the entrance onto University Blvd. I don’t remember seeing cars. I remember seeing people. A great migration of people walking from Alberta to DCH. Like a horde of zombies. Slow. Silent.
We made our way to the hospital to where we had left a car just in case, and we drove to my grandmother’s house on the other side of town. My father stayed home with the dog and a gun. We’d heard too many stories of looters to take any chances (though I doubt anyone would have been able to navigate the minefield that was our neighborhood in pitch black dark).
The next few days didn’t go exactly as expected. I thought it would be full of sorrow and terror. It wasn’t. It was extraordinary. I have never seen people come together faster. The next day people everywhere were out working, clearing debris, rescuing trapped people. It didn’t matter who we were, what we did, or what we looked like. We were from Tuscaloosa. We were one. My school was filled with donations, clothes and supplies stacked two feet high in our atrium. While the high schoolers went to help clear neighborhoods or help organize at Temporary Emergency Servies, the middle schoolers sorted and folded clothes. For an hour every day. For weeks.
Slowly, stories started coming in. Photos. Some were sad, but others were full of hope. Of those who had lost everything finding help in those who had nothing. Everyone came together to help each other in whatever way they could. It was incredible. The resilience, the strength, the hope. The pride. This was our city. Sure, we had been knocked down, but we were damn sure not going to stay down.
We did not stay down. We rose from the destruction, better, stronger than before. Together. Tuscaloosa, the One and Only.