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'Day You'll Never Forget': Decade After Deadly Tuscaloosa Tornado, Recovery Is Uneven

In this file photo taken May 4, 2011, Tuscaloosa Fire Lt. Brian Phillips climbs a pile of rubble in search of survivors or bodies at an apartment building in Tuscaloosa, Ala. On April 27, 2011, a series of tornadoes killed hundreds of people, injured thousands and reduced countless buildings to rubble across a swath of the U.S.
In this file photo taken May 4, 2011, Tuscaloosa Fire Lt. Brian Phillips climbs a pile of rubble in search of survivors or bodies at an apartment building in Tuscaloosa, Ala. On April 27, 2011, a series of tornadoes killed hundreds of people, injured thousands and reduced countless buildings to rubble across a swath of the U.S.

On April 27, 2011, one of the worst tornado outbreaks in U.S. history struck the Deep South. It was what forecasters call a Super Outbreak with at least 100 major, destructive tornadoes. More than 300 people lost their lives, and the rash of storms caused an estimated $10 billion worth of damage to homes, businesses, and government infrastructure.

One of the cities hit hardest was Tuscaloosa, Ala. A nearly mile wide tornado cut a path though the town, killing 53 people, and injuring 1200 more.

"Some people designate this as a disaster," Mayor Walt Maddox said back then. "I think for the 93,000 citizens I represent, we would categorize this as a nightmare."

Maddox is still mayor and today is helping the community mark the event a decade later. He has overseen a difficult recovery, trying to restore neighborhoods, businesses, and government buildings and get the city back up and running. Maddox says Tuscaloosa has made great strides, but scars remain.

To show the sheer magnitude of what the city was up against, on recent spring day Maddox drives along the path of the tornado.

"One of the early decisions we made was not to call it the tornado zone, but to call it the recovery zone, because we just felt like that we needed to give people hope."

Hope after some 12% of the city was wiped out.

"Seven thousand people became unemployed within six minutes," he says. "On top of that, we lost the Salvation Army and the American Red Cross."

The tornado also took out the county emergency management facility, communication towers, police cars, garbage trucks, and the sewage treatment plant — the very infrastructure necessary to respond in a disaster.

Maddox says in the immediate aftermath, it was chaos with dazed and confused people wandering around not knowing where to go or what to do.

"I call it zombieism; people were just walking," Maddox says. "That scene of people just walking up and down the streets nowhere to go, you felt like you are looking at a movie dealing with the apocalypse."

He stops at Rosedale Courts, a public housing complex that was one of the first residential areas levelled by the Tuscaloosa tornado.

Rosedale was rebuilt five years later with nearly twice the units from 188 to 302 — attractive brick townhomes grouped around playgrounds and lushly landscaped parks.

"I have a story to tell"

There's no visible reminder that this was once a disaster zone, but the collective memory is strong.

Jeanette Barnes survived the tornado by hunkering in her bedroom closet.

"So I have a story to tell," she says.

Barnes, who is 72, sits in a gazebo at Rosedale, sharing photographs of the destruction here. Her apartment collapsed, trapping her.

"I was covered in bricks and everything," I was buried in it."

Neighbors had to dig her from the rubble. She was in shock.

"Trauma," she says. "And then when they came to my rescue and they got me out it was just like a war zone, you know? I mean, people were hurt. People were screaming."

Nine people were killed in Rosedale, including small children. Barnes escaped with minor injuries, but like most residents she lost all her possessions, including her car, which landed upside down on top of another apartment a block away.

"It changed Tuscaloosa forever," Barnes says. "It's a day that you'll never forget. Never."

More than a 100 families who lived in Rosedale were displaced, says Chris Hall, executive director of the Tuscaloosa Housing Authority. And, as is typically the case after major disasters, people with the least resources struggle to rebound.

"They're low to moderate income families. A lot of them are on a fixed income," Hall says. "Some of them lost everything that they owned and, you know, no renter's insurance."

It was especially hard on older residents Hall says. Some died shortly after the tornado. The stress of having to relocate and start again was just too much.

Disaster made housing crunch worse

He says the disaster also made an existing housing crunch even worse, destroying roughly 10% of Tuscaloosa's affordable housing stock.

"Now that's amplified tenfold," he says. "Even though you've got these families with vouchers to assist them to find places, the people that were displaced from Rosedale, they can't find anywhere. And that still holds true today."

Tuscaloosa had nearly $1 billion in unmet needs in the aftermath of the tornado, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Local officials say that's a low estimate.

Harrison Taylor is the former president of the Tuscaloosa city council.

"I just didn't see us coming back. I'll be honest with you," Taylor says. "I thought it'd be a ghost town here and there. No, not like it is now."

In the last decade, the rebuilding has been fueled by more than $1 billion in public and private investment.

Taylor says it took people overlooking their differences to start to come back. For instance, Tuscaloosa's Democratic mayor working with Republican Sen. Richard Shelby to bring government resources to bear. And he says it changed people at the neighborhood level as well.

"Black, white, young and old come together and we worked through this thing and made Tuscaloosa what it is today," Taylor says.

Still you can see signs of an uneven recovery.

Some new construction is visible on debris filled Forest Lake in Tuscaloosa, Ala., in this photo taken Tuesday, April 10, 2012.
Dave Martin / AP
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Some new construction is visible on debris filled Forest Lake in Tuscaloosa, Ala., in this photo taken Tuesday, April 10, 2012.

The last leg of Mayor Maddox's driving tour is to the east side of town known as Alberta City.

"The tornado by this time has grown by over a half mile," he recalls. "Everything you see we see in front of us was totally destroyed. And you can see still some vacant lots."

Habitat for Humanity has helped one street come back. And there's new government buildings as well – fire and police stations, and a school technology center. But some commercial property remains vacant.

Here the stretches of barren landscape stand in contrast to more affluent neighborhoods where insurance coverage allowed people to build back faster, and up to current building codes.

"This tornado hit some of the poorest areas of our city with some of the most antiquated infrastructure," Maddox says. "That's what made this recovery even more difficult." He says 70% of the people who were impacted were renting with a median income of less than $25,000.

The city has also seen speculators and developers swoop in, sending commercial real estate prices skyrocketing. Tuscaloosa is chock full of new high-end apartments geared for college students at the University of Alabama's burgeoning campus.

Maddox says in hindsight, the city should have done more to make sure lower and moderate-income renters weren't priced out.

"We probably allowed too much occupancy into multifamily housing," Maddox acknowledges. "Which helped explode some of the apartment issues that we see."

Disparities in rebuilding and coping with trauma

Five years after the tornado, University of Alabama sociologist Ariane Prohaska looked at how the disaster affected people from different social classes or ethnicities.

"You saw this definite income gap in recovery," Prohaska says. "Black families and Hispanic families were disproportionately affected."

Standing on vacant lot near where her home was struck 10 years ago, Prohaska says her own struggle to cope after the tornado led her to the research interviewing tornado survivors. She found disparities both in the actual rebuilding, and also in terms of coping with the trauma of the disaster.

"People talk to me about still being afraid, not having received mental health treatment," Prohaska says. "So you have kind of the emotional recovery."

She's hopeful the research can lead to better services to cope in future disasters. And weather watchers say this part of the Deep South is increasingly prone to severe weather outbreaks.

"You are definitely seeing a trend of decreasing activity in the plains and increasing activity in the southeast," says Jack Sillin, an atmospheric science student at Cornell University who blogs about the weather.

Sillin provoked a Twitter discussion recently over gaps in the national weather service's rural radar coverage.

"Unfortunately it's not evenly distributed."

City committed to keep people safe

The radar helps forecasters issue tornado warnings in time for people to take cover, and early warnings are key in regions where people might live in mobile homes or places that don't have basements.

"One of the areas especially left out is the rural, predominantly Black, part of the South that extends from southern Arkansas through central Mississippi into southern Alabama and southern Georgia," Sillin says, making the case that improving radar coverage here should be a priority for federal infrastructure spending.

In Tuscaloosa Mayor Maddox says the city is committed to doing everything necessary to keep people safe in the event of another catastrophic tornado. Part of the recovery plan included putting safe rooms in community centers to provide shelter for people who might not be protected at home.

Maddox says the recovery is still a work in progress. And he says those who lost loved ones may never fully recover. A decade later, he says everyone who survived lives with a dramatically altered landscape, a subtle reminder of what happened here.

"Our entire tree canopy of the city disappeared, and that's one of those losses when you compare it to human life and people losing their businesses and homes certainly doesn't rank there," Maddox says. "But it's a loss for our community that will take generations for it to ever come back."

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