“You are not going out with that boy unless his parents are driving and that's that. I'm not just Spitting Grits here, young lady!”

. . . My father, John Thomas Cravey, USAF, to me in 1956.

Tornado Morphing

Tornadoes don’t have names, as Atlantic, Gulf of Mexico, and Pacific hurricanes do. April 27, 2011, probably explains why: There aren’t enough names, and names are too nice for tornadoes of that magnitude. That day, in Alabama alone, at least 38 twisters ripped up more than 1,000 miles of cities, towns, and countryside, killing nearly 240 people and countless animals; injuries are in the thousands. The state isn’t even 1,000 miles long.

But I have a name for the monster that devastated Tuscaloosa – Mutant.

Images of the mutant thing abound. Just search “Tuscaloosa tornado.”

Even from its inception southwest of the Tuscaloosa city limits, it was almost a mile wide; it had tentacles; it swallowed another twister or two to enlarge itself. Structures and things in its path that should have impacted its momentum seemed to feed it. It was a singular presence, without the usual rain wall or extended blackness to disguise it. The countryside forests and woods, the cityscape, the green spaces – none of these hid it from view. It just kept coming and coming and coming. Television meteorologists lost their composure and were all but screaming for everyone to take cover.

The world saw the images of the Mutant’s destruction for days afterwards. President Obama, as well as some entertainers, came in person. Obama’s shock was visible. “I’ve got to say, I've never seen destruction like this,” he said.

The Mutant directly and significantly affected about a quarter of the city’s residents. It destroyed or severely damaged at least 5,000 buildings in the city. Ironically, it destroyed Tuscaloosa’s Emergency Operations Center, as well as the Salvation Army building, Red Cross building, police station and fire station buildings and vehicles, the city’s garbage trucks, a water treatment operation, several schools, and on and on and on. The clean-up will likely cost more than $100 million.

The emotional toll is not countable.

Normal Destruction

All this is simply numbers. Here’s another: It has created somewhere between 1.5 and 2 million cubic yards of debris.

Who, other than experts, knew that debris is measured in cubic yards or in tons? Ordinarily, who cares? Certainly not me. So I tried to get some perspective on this kind of meaningless number.

First, our Tax Day Tornado less than two weeks earlier, which I reported in the April 20 post, created about 15,000 cubic yards of debris. That one was sort of a normal tornado, so that otherwise meaningless number may be kind of “normal” for tornadoes. Frankly, those numbers still didn’t really mean anything.

So I tried to find out how many cubic yards of debris were created from the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center and from hurricane Katrina 2005. What I found was likely “ballpark” figures, as totals were different in different sources.

Mutant Destruction

Many of us remember the images. From those memories, we can make meaningless numbers more real.

One report: “Even though it was a terrible site, the P&J team didn’t feel the effort would be insurmountable. They estimated that Ground Zero looked to have about a million cubic yards of debris; we had handled four times that much following Hurricane Andrew.”

Another: “By comparison, the disaster debris generated after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York City was approximately 1.4 million tons (2.8 million CY).”

Finally: “He cut short critics of the slow hurricane relief effort by offering statistics on the magnitude of the disaster. While the destruction of the World Trade Center created 1 million cubic yards of debris in New York, he said, hurricanes Katrina and Rita created 45 million cubic yards of debris in Mississippi alone.”

These numbers tell us that the Tuscaloosa debris is comparable to the debris from the destroyed World Trade Center. Discovering this was shocking.

For several reasons, I spent time, after the National Guard opened the worst affected areas, shooting video, some of which I will edit and put on YouTube. What I saw and what survivors told me was emotionally draining. I will deal with their stories in upcoming posts.

Suffice it to say right now that the Mutant did one more thing besides destroying and killing: it created new and shocking vistas. All that debris used to be something; it’s now gone, leaving huge open spaces where people, pets, trees, gardens, vehicles, swimming pools, and ordinary life used to be.


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