We see and can get glued to the ravages of a disaster. The images are often horrendous. Sometimes we’re thankful, even relieved, when another news story replaces the disaster.
But here’s how a major disaster becomes all too personal:
As the monster tornado entered the city, my husband and I were watching James Spann at ABC 33-40 in Birmingham who was showing it on the tower cam. It was so huge that Spann lost his composure. Then we grabbed our dog Maggie and dove into our laundry room in the center of our house.
Later that evening I got a text from a young woman who helps me with Joanna Leigh on weekends. She was on the balcony of the Links apartment complex in south Tuscaloosa, only a short distance from where the tornado entered the city limits. She took this photo, then ran for the bathroom.
The photographer later understood how dangerous it could have been.
Early Thursday morning, when I knew there had been massive damage in the city but knew little else, my son, who had been watching the news from Texas and keeping us informed, called extremely upset. He had just learned that a friend of his whom he had played football with at The University of Alabama had found out about 1 a.m. that his daughter had been killed by the tornado. I think I must have caved. I packed up Joanna Leigh and myself and left for Montgomery where I had family and friends. I knew I’d be able to get gas on the way out.
While I was there, a friend sent me a picture of the entrance to Windsor Drive.
I lived for 25 years on Windsor Drive in the Alberta City area of Tuscaloosa. Alberta City was where President Obama walked to see the damage up close, and it was so ravaged by the April 27 tornado that I could not recognize where in Alberta City he walked. Even a week later we are still disallowed to enter that area.
Those who have never seen Windsor Drive might not know from the picture how extensive the damage is, but the picture bears no resemblance to the neighborhood entrance I knew so well. The picture (below) was the first indication of how hard it would be to come home and see the damage with my eyes.
The entrance to Windsor Drive in Tuscaloosa
I then got an e-mail from a student friend of mine with a link to a video he had put together of what remained of his condo. I have had dinner at that condo. He was in a basement at a friend’s house, but his brother was on the condo’s kitchen floor with a metal pot on his head when it went over and sucked out nearly everything.
Then my first cousin called his mother (my aunt) in Montgomery; I was sitting there and he recounted his encounter with the tornado. I will post his account later, with unpublished pictures.
At some point I knew I had to return home and face what had happened.
Tuscaloosa is a small city of fewer than 100,000. Nothing that the tornado hit is far enough away from anyone to allow for distancing themselves from the damage. We will all have to drive through it for years to come.
And driving through some of it was the big step I had to take. I took video. Yet I know it is only a small bit of what is out there to have to see soon. The city is slowly opening up closed areas like Alberta City.
The day I shot video, May 3, was unseasonably cold and rainy, like a December day. The video footage I put together is on streets I drive to get anywhere, including picking up Joanna Leigh from her school. I will see it over and over and over.
On the radio in the background is WTXT, programming converted to call-ins telling what they need or volunteers telling what they have available and where. “You’re on the phone. How can we help you?” said the announcers over and over.
One woman from the decimated Cedar Crest area was expressing her gratitude for all the help. She then said that her cat, Peanut Butter, was still missing and that she believed she would find her. She asked that people let her know if they sighted a tortoise-shell cat with a brown blob on its head that looked like peanut butter.
The first half of the video shows the intersection of two main arteries serving the city: 15th Street (east-west) and McFarland Boulevard, Highway 82, (north-south); I was driving north on McFarland and then back. Cozy landmarks, like Hobby Lobby, Big Lots, Tide Clean, Krispy Kreme, and many, many others are debris that will be loaded on dump trucks.
The second half is the route home from Joanna Leigh’s school, and you can hear her voice in the background: from 15th Street (west of the main intersection) and turning south onto Hackberry/Hargrove Road, then making my way back to 15th Street to turn east and go home.
On the Hargrove Road segment, you see Wood Manor, where my friend Nathan’s condo was; a little way up, you can look northeast and see the hospital several miles away, something I never imagined. There’s nothing to block the view now.
Emotional recovery will take a lot longer than the other kinds.
If there is any doubt what kind of monster could have done this damage, watch Mike Wilhelm’s raw footage on YouTube or here: