On Friday morning, walking through the Alberta area of Tuscaloosa, I saw a man sifting through the rubble of what used to be Affordable Mini Storage. He was going through the remains of his storage unit, searching for anything salvageable in the post-apocalyptic landscape of our home town. He picked up a toy from the debris, a still-sealed Ozzy Osbourne action figure and tossed it into his "save" pile. "At least he's in good shape, huh?" the man said.
So much of Tuscaloosa and so many of the lives in it have been bent out of shape. On McFarland Boulevard, at the same storage facility where I saw the Ozzy fan, I met Ashley Hughes and Edward Kimbrough. They were engaged to be married but, on the same day that big royal wedding was taking place in London, they were searching for what they thought they had put away safely among the ruins of Affordable Mini Storage. Still, they were fortunate. Their Alberta home was one of the few houses in the area that was not totaled. "The neighborhood next to ours is completely flattened," said Kimbrough. "I had to pull a guy out of a house whose foot was underneath his stomach."
It's been two days since the tornado tore through town and we're all still trying put our lives back together. My family's home was spared but, because it no longer had electricity, we moved in with with friends in the northern part of the county who were not hit by the twister. But after our son, John Harper, developed a fever Friday morning we decided to send him and my wife, Amy, to the Cullman County town of Garden City to stay with her parents. She was getting homesick for family and, even though her folks didn't have electricity, they had a working gas heater and oven. Their county was also devastated by a tornado but at least she had kin to turn to there.
More than 45 fatalities have now been confirmed in Tuscaloosa, with hundreds more people still missing. The plague of tornadoes that hit multiple states on Wednesday has now claimed at least 300 lives. President Obama touched down in Tuscaloosa on Friday morning, visiting some of the hardest hit areas, including Alberta and Holt, and pledging pledged full federal support.
After sending my wife and son on to my in-laws, I decided to set out on a walk through the Alberta area Friday, which begins about a quarter mile from our house, to view the devastation first hand. The Chinese place I occasionally got take out, the bank I visited weekly and the grocery store I sometimes bought food from were wiped almost clean from the earth.
Dan Maguire, who lives between the Alberta and Holt communities, and some of his friends were sawing up trees and limbs and piling them to the side of his driveway. Seven trees fell on the home of Maguire and his wife, Megan, but fortunately none destroyed his house. "I thought I would be more upset about this, but I don't care. It's cliché to say we're lucky to be alive, but we are. So many people have it a lot worse," Maguire said as he pointed across to the home of his neighbor, whose second story had been cleft in two by a tree. "I've got a small hole back here, but he can't stay in his house."
Multiple signs in Maguire's neighborhood warned that "Looters Will Be Shot," a stark reminder that while tragedy can bring out the worst in some people. Mayor Walt Maddox imposed an 8 p.m. curfew in the affected areas for the next several days to stop some of the looting that has occurred since the tornado struck.
Margaret Odom moved to Alberta in 1929 when she was four and attended church at Alberta United Methodist Church until 2008. "Mama O," as she is affectionally known around here, now lives in a community about a mile away from the path of the twister, but her heart remains with the area in which she grew up. Sitting at her home Friday afternoon watching news coverage of the tornado, Odom recalled the days when Alberta consisted of little more than two churches and she had to walk through woods to get to the elementary school. "You've got so many memories and it's hard to think that that's not there anymore," she said. "I have my memories, but so many people have nothing left."
I later drove to a subdivision called The Downs in the heart of Tuscaloosa that is home to several friends of ours. A former colleague's home was just missed by huge oak trees that fell in her front yard, making her home one of the few in this neighborhood that escaped destruction. Nearby, our day care provider's home was struck by a tree and part of her chimney was lying in her yard. Deeper into the subdivision the destruction was much worse. A fellow member of our Sunday School had lost his house. Behind his lot stood the remains of my former boss's home. It will have have to be razed. After I helped my ex-boss stack up some salvageable items he searched for a folding chair to sit on and watch men cut trees off of what was left of his roof.
But it is not all bleak. While disaster can bring out the bad in people and it can get you down, it can also move us toward good. Everywhere I went, I saw residents working to clear trees from their homes and yards nearby. Volunteers walked the streets passing out water and sack lunches while men toting chainsaws and driving tractors stopped to ask, "How can I help?" The recovery efforts here will not be measured in days and weeks, but months and years. But I know Tuscaloosa will bounce back. The tornado may have taken many lives and even more homes, but it hasn't taken the will of this place. The city will return to life.