I traveled to Tuscaloosa, AL yesterday to take part in a funeral and reception for my Uncle Gabe, whose official and honorary pallbearers included some of the more distinguished names in Crimson Tide lore. A smallish tornado had ripped through Birmingham earlier in the morning leaving most of the towns between Moody and Bessemer without power. I caught some intermittent rain from the darkened skies, but otherwise it was a fairly typical drive. By the time the funeral started at 3:00 pm, the winds had really picked up. My uncle requested that we have a party afterwards in order to honor the way he lived, so a reception followed at his home on the waterfront just across the Black Warrior River from the hospital.
By the time the bar opened, the tornado sirens started to wail. We didn’t think much of it as tornado sirens are pretty common in the deep South. Still, everyone kept an eye to the sky just in case. After a while, a murmur came from the back porch as it appeared that the storm was forming a funnel. The smart people dashed for cover in doorways and windowless rooms. The rest of us Darwin Award candidates ran outside to get a better look. Like I said, we had been drinking.
You can watch as the clouds darken and the funnel forms near the center of the screen. Eventually, the F3/F4 tornado churns through town throwing debris high into the air. It started to head toward the river, stalled, and (fortunately for us morons who were filming) veered along the tree line away from our house. As usual, it looks so much smaller in the video than it did in real life and you can’t really see the jetsam being bandied about. If I had kept filming for another minute, you would have gotten to see everyone scramble as the bottom fell out and drenched everyone in the yard. I think this was was the first time I’ve ever seen my father sprint. Ever.
The closest edge of the tornado was probably 1/4 mile away from the other side of the river. If the perimeter of the storm had moved any closer to us, it could have been very bad considering how many people we had at the event.
The aftermath of the storm was pure devastation. Considering the frequency and probability of a storm like this hitting the area, I was very disappointed in the emergency response (too soon to make a joke about putting an Auburn grad in charge?) There seemed to be no communication, no news released to the public, and no plan for evacuation. McFarland had been completely closed since the tornado touched down and most of the city had gone dark, literally and figuratively. Even when I left town at 4:00 am the next morning, the policemen at the overpass barricade at 82 & University couldn’t tell me if I-59 was passable or if University was clear of debris all the way until the interstate exit.
My drive through campus revealed no real damage that I could see. Immediately after The Strip, the power had already been restored (if it was ever lost). My biggest problem came in finding a place to get gas. I was turned away at two locations along 59 North until I finally found a place near the Talladega Super Speedway. The trees along the route were already damaged in a tornado the week prior, so that wasn’t out of the ordinary. The only major damage I saw was a pile of vehicles, including an eighteen-wheeler, that looked like a collection of crushed aluminum cans. A cell tower had been toppled and lay on the ground like a mangled slinky. Miles of interstate smelled like gasoline. It wasn’t pretty, but I’m sure it was nowhere near as bad as the scene at 15th Street and McFarland.
UPDATE: It’s been less than 48 hours since the storm killed over 300 and left countless Southerners homeless and out of work. In that short time frame, the comment spammers have already started exploiting the tragedy to sell their junk.
If Dante Alighieri was alive today, he’d create a special circle of hell for these people.