Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Where Were You: Tuscaloosa Tornado

Tuscaloosa is a city pretty prone to bad weather, and thankfully, we've mostly dodged the biggest bullets. But five years ago today, the city was devastated when a violent tornado tore through the middle of town causing billions in damage and taking more than 40 lives.

Where were you?

I was working at our local answering service, The Legacy Connection. It was late afternoon, which is normally one of the busiest times for the answering service, when businesses are closing and turning their phone lines over to be answered by TLC operators. Most businesses had thankfully closed early that day in anticipation for the bad weather that was coming, so it was oddly quiet for that particular time of day.

The two ladies who run the business, owner Robin and operations manager Deb were there with about eight operators. Robin had a television on in her office, and we could hear James Spann talking about a tornado in the next county over that was steadily moving our direction. Tornadoes moving from the next county over into Tuscaloosa county is normal; that's just the path they tend to take, so we didn't think much of it. Until James Spann started talking about it's projection. It's aiming towards the downtown area, and University Mall. That's smack in the middle of town. A tornado going that direction is definitely NOT normal.

As we listened, Deb came into the operator room and quickly went over the tornado procedures. "When I say 'Go,' you'll turn your phones off and go into the hallway." Okay, no big deal. She was pretty calm, probably the most calm of everyone there. From Robin's office, we could still hear James Spann calling out timeframes. "Ten minutes to downtown Tuscaloosa, fifteen minutes to University Mall."

Then when he said, "Five minutes to downtown, ten minutes to University Mall," we heard a deep, low roar outside and Deb came in and said, "Go." So we headed to the hallway. A few of us were starting to freak out a little. Deb, always the most diligent one in the building, as at her desk on the phone with clients. Outside the front door of our little building near Capitol Park, it was black as night.

We were lucky to be spared any damage, and as soon as the danger had passed our location, we got back on the phones. As the tornado continued to rampage through town, we began to get calls from some of our clients, reporting their status and the status of their businesses. I remember speaking to one client, a local locksmith company, who's business was located right in the middle of some of the worst damage. He just kept saying, "It's just a total loss. Everything's gone. Not just us, but everything around us too." That's when I started worrying, because based on his location, I knew we had a handful of clients, including the American Red Cross, within rock-throwing distance from his location.

I finally heard from my dad, who was living in Holt, another hard hit area of town, and while his house was damaged, he was alright. I got off work about an hour later than usual, and Dixie picked me up and told me about how he and a couple friends had been in the car just off 15th Street when the tornado passed through. In the next few days, everyone at the answering service worked extra shifts to pick up for clients who couldn't open their offices, including the American Red Cross, whose local building had been destroyed as well. It was a rough time of disbelief and trying to move on when life just was not the same.

Five years later, Tuscaloosa has rebounded in an amazing way. But when you drive through town, if you hadn't been here to see the rebuilding, you'd swear you were in a different town altogether. Everything came back bigger and different.

The whole city still worries about the weather, and when there's a bad weather even projected, James Spann almsot always prefaces his broadcast with, "This is NOT expected to be another April 27th." Because that's the ultimate fear that everyone lives with in regards to the weather.

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