5 Years Later: Remembering April 27, 2011 in Tuscaloosa, Alabama
Five years have passed since April 27, 2011. As we commemorate the anniversary of that tragic date, I’d like to share something special with you–I hope these words can mean as much to you as they do to me.
I love you, Tuscaloosa.
I love your name, four sweet syllables rolling off the tongue like a heartbeat: tusk-ah-loo-sah. I love your warm snow-less winters, your stormy springs–pollen coated cars and all– your impossibly hot and hazy summers–the air heavy with humidity and the smell of barbecue ribs smoking off in the distance.
I love your fall: the streets running crimson, neighbors and friends greeting one another with that Southern aloha: Roll Tide. I love your tailgating, houndstooth, Denny Chimes, the Walk of Champions, the sound of the Patron Saint of Football on the speakers at Bryant-Denny: I ain’t never been nothing but a winner.
Most of all, I love you– this city, its people as a whole. This city with a heart so big that nothing and no one could ever contain it.
5:10pm, April 27, 2011: a tornado over a mile wide–I remember those shots on the ABC 33/40 TowerCam, a tornado so wide it couldn’t be real. I hid in the basement, just like James Spann implored us all to do:
Tuscaloosa, I loved you through those moments of fear, of doubt, of dread. I prayed for you and your people. I loved you during that nightmare, and my heart still aches thinking of that storm, of that loss, of that complete and utter devastation.
I didn’t think it was possible, but I grew to love you more. The minute the clouds parted, you were there: neighbors helping neighbors, strangers offering comfort in confusion, open hearts, open arms, open kitchens.
Tuscaloosa, your kindness knows no bounds. I love you for that kindness, that selflessness. The days and weeks that followed that storm seem like a blur to me, but your crimson heart always shines through.
I think of those long days in the B101.7 studio, the phones ringing faster than I could answer them, and you, Tuscaloosa, reaching out to meet those needs the moment the call to action left my lips.
When I said someone needed to help an elderly lady clear debris from her roof, I had a response minutes later: a call from a group of Bama boys wanting to know her address–chainsaws gassed up and ready to go. I remember an elementary student collecting teddy bears and toys, a child reaching out to heal the hearts of his neighbors and friends. Churches gathering clothes, shoes, furniture and heading out to clear, to clean, to rebuild.
I remember volunteers, a stream of volunteers, lined up and ready to help at a moment’s notice. They cleared debris. They shoveled dirt. They stitched up wounds, mended fences, mended hearts.
There were no strangers after the storm–just one family looking out for its own. And food, so much food. Ask a Southerner for help, and you’ll get it–and a casserole, too. People cooking meals for strangers: sweet tea, barbecue, sandwiches, cookies, all warm and ready for any tired and hungry neighbor, any friend. I remember Coach Gene Stallings himself grilling hotdogs and hamburgers for 15th Street volunteers.
Your kindness, your infinite kindness–too much for me or anyone else to measure. I love you for that kindness. I always will.
It was a time of immense tragedy but you came out from the rubble and polished off The Golden Rule; you made it so bright, so shiny it belongs in the Bryant Museum.
Tuscaloosa, a city full of selfless, kind, caring people–a city full of champions.
I love you, Tuscaloosa.
I love you, Tuscaloosa. You are beautiful.
Beautiful in a thousand ways, like refracted beams of light dancing at sunset on the Black Warrior River. Beautiful like dogwoods blooming near the Old Capitol. Beautiful like the night sky, lit up and electric: Bryant-Denny, the center of the universe on a Saturday night.
And the faces, the beautiful faces of beautiful people, formed to make the city I am proud to call my home. Tuscaloosa has always been beautiful.
When I say “The Storm,” you know what I mean: a phrase heavy with the weight of broken homes, broken branches, broken hearts. The storm took a lot of things from you, Tuscaloosa, but you are still beautiful.
When I was a young girl, I had an operation that left me with a big, bright red scar. I remember lamenting that scar and thinking I was forever tarnished. My mother assured me I was still pretty; she said, “You are not beautiful despite this scar. You are beautiful because of it.”
That is you, Tuscaloosa, infinitely more beautiful because of your scars. The storm did not break you. You shook off the rubble, brushed off the red dirt, and stood tall, ready to face another day.
That scar aches from time to time, the pain of a wound that may never fully heal. But you don’t let it stop you. You keep going, keep growing: mended rooftops, fresh paint, brand-new buildings for brand-new businesses.
A beautiful future and a beautiful past–Tuscaloosa, you have it all.
I love you, Tuscaloosa.