UA seniors reflect on April 27th tornado

Tuscaloosa, Ala., Saturday, May 7, 2011. (AP Photo/Dave Martin)

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. (WIAT) – It’s hard to believe that three years have gone by since April 27th, 2011. It’s a day a many people in the city of Tuscaloosa will never forget. A large chunk of the city was ripped apart in a matter of seconds. But Tuscaloosa officials have worked hard over the last few years to rebuild the area.

DCH, now visible from 15th Street. For years the facility had been blocked by trees.
DCH, now visible from 15th Street. For years the facility had been blocked by trees.

The town’s identify and appearance changes every few months as a business returns, or a new one stakes its claim. A group that has seen this change first hand is the 2014 senior class for the University of Alabama.

“The thing we lost most was the foliage, like the trees,” said Mikel Doyle, a senior majoring in Telecommunication and Film. Alexandra Karr, another TCF major, quickly added, “all the trees, [they] were so pretty, then all of a sudden [they] were cut off.”

It’s part of the little things you sometimes take for granted. Mikel and Alexandra are just a part of the small portion of the University of Alabama’s student body that was on campus before April 27th, 2011. The 2010 freshman class was the last class to be a part of the city of Tuscaloosa, both before and after the storms. For all the change they have seen, the foliage still stands out to them. Even now, three years of rebuilding, hasn’t changed the fact that some areas still look completely different without the trees that once graced the land.

Drew Bryant, TCF major, described the scenery change he saw. He remembers how much a difference those trees made, “before on 15th Street, you couldn’t see DCH, now you can see it from as far away as you want to see it.”

(Top) a look at the place Hokkaido, a popular restaurant in Tuscaloosa, once stood. (Bottom) Across the street, the new Hokkadio is now open for business.
(Top) a look at the place Hokkaido, a popular restaurant in Tuscaloosa, once stood. (Bottom) Across the street, the new Hokkadio is now open for business.

“Up until April 27th, Tuscaloosa was home, it was normal,” said TCF major Hannah Mills, “[but] the day after it was totally unrecognizable, it was like a new city.”

April 27th changed a lot for the city of Tuscaloosa. For the students of the University of Alabama it changed how they would treat alerts.

“It’s just probably going to be rain,” thought TCF major Varrecke Johnson, “it’ll be fine like it always is.”

Up until that day, the school sent out about six storm alerts already that semester. None of the five students took the alert on that day seriously, but once the sky started getting dark, the reality of what they may face began to sink in.

“It was all happening so fast, and it caught us off guard,” said Varrecke. Alexandra didn’t know how to react, “we walked outside and we saw it, and I was like oh my god, and I started laughing because I didn’t know what else to do at that point. I was so scared that I started laughing.”

How do you react to a storm like the one that hit Tuscaloosa on April 27th? The storms that hit the state of Alabama that day claimed the lives of 254 people. The Tuscaloosa one alone killed 51. While Mikel, Alexandra, Varrecke, Hannah, and Drew were lucky enough to make it out of the storm alive, they were left with a much different place to call home. “[It] looks like Haiti out here,” said Alexandra, “we finally got through to my mom and I physically couldn’t talk to her so [my boyfriend] had to talk to her. I remember the first thing he said to her was, yes ma’am, looks like Haiti out here. After that it was a big blur, because I was just in shock.”

Alexandra wasn’t the only one in shock. After the storm had left its path of devastation, Drew and his friends walked down the road of wreckage along 15th Street, “You were not prepared for what you would see.”

They would travel down the road again on the 28th, even with the added hours to let the reality of what they just went through sink in, it still didn’t help to absorb the destruction they were surrounded by, “seeing it both times you still had that shock factor.”

For Hannah Mills, April 28th was almost worse than the 27th, “After hearing 400 people missing from Tuscaloosa, that in itself was more shocking than seeing 15th Street flattened. Thankfully that number went down.”

The storm had changed the landscape of the city and before you could do anything about it, you had to see it to really believe it. “Seeing all the decimation was incredible but horrible,” said Mikel. “I can’t believe what I saw,” said Varrecke. But disbelief isn’t the only thing Varrekce felt, “It was a humbling experience for us because we didn’t take it that seriously at all.”

Tuscaloosa wasn’t the only city that looked completely different on the 28th. Hannah recalled what she saw in Alberta City, located just outside Tuscaloosa, “In Alberta City you’d see looters and people screaming to find family members.” The storms that hit Alabama that day reached from places like Tuscaloosa, to cities like Cordova, Cullman, and Hackleburg. The multiple storms throughout the state made finding a place of refuge harder for people like Drew who was from Guntersville, another area hit by the storms, “[the University] was telling us to try and get home, but my current city has no power, I can’t get home, and if I did they have no power either.”

A lake located on 15th Street, once hidden from view by a large amount of trees.
A lake located on 15th Street, once hidden from view by a large amount of trees.

As the months passed, Tuscaloosa began to rebuild. “Started taking place a year after,” added Drew, “that’s when businesses started to rebuild.” But for those who remember the city before, no matter how much is added to the city, it may never feel “normal” again.It really does feel like a different city. In the interest of full disclosure, when driving down to interview this group I ended up being 15 minutes late. For the first time in years I got lost in Tuscaloosa. Streets have changed, landmarks have changed. The city continues to rebuild, but it truly may never feel like it is “back to normal”. As Drew describes it, “it’s not a normal we knew as much as it is a different normal. It’s the new normal.”

Since that day, all 5 seniors have treated the alerts they get much differently. At no time was that more apparent than the first time a threat of severe weather hit the area after April 27th. “You think oh my god is this going to happen again,” Mikel described, “I went to a place I knew was going to be safe and stayed until I knew there wasn’t going to be a storm.” Even though no storm hitting Tuscaloosa has come close to what happened on that day, there is now a feeling of uneasiness when it comes to severe weather.

Alexandra described the last alert she received from the school, “we got an alert a week ago overnight. I didn’t sleep that night because I was so scared it was going to hit at night and I wouldn’t know it happened so I stayed up. Now I do take it seriously and it really freaks me out.”

All five seniors are not only aware of the weather around them, they are aware of the amazing growth in the community in a relatively short amount of time.

“The amount of infrastructure that we’ve got, new apartments, new restaurants, and even the old ones have been rebuilt better, said Mikel, “the tornado destroyed an area, but the city and University have been able to build a lot of new things there.” Alexandra agrees, “of course the tornado was bad, but if you’re looking for a positive it’s that Tuscaloosa was able to rebuild so much better than it was before.” A change Hannah has seen since the storms is the growing sense of community in the city, “people want to help people more.”

While there still will be people on the campus of the University of Alabama who were there on April 27th, 2011, this group represents the last incoming class to see the storm. They have an odd distinction of being in the “tornado class”. Over the course of their time on the Capstone they’ve seen tremendous development for the University, multiple national championships, including football, gymnastics, and softball, and the growth of the city that surrounds campus. But it’s hard to shake April 27th off the record books. It’s something that not only shaped a town, but the collegiate lives of many students. With each passing year, less and less students on campus will remember what it was like that day in Tuscaloosa, but there will always be little reminders of April 27th. “We all just thought it was going to be another thing that just went away,” Mikel describing the feeling early on that day. The memories of the EF-4 twister that hit the town, taking 51 lives with it, will never go away, but neither will Tuscaloosa.

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Copyright 2014 WIAT-CBS42

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