The webcam feed on my television frightened me. It was mounted on a building in downtown Tuscaloosa, and it showed the unmistakable image of a massive funnel cloud, heading that way. My wife and I just stared at it, both of us fearing the worst. Another 60 miles to the east and it would be at our house. I didn’t think it would, because tornadoes don’t move that way, but these storms were breaking all the rules.
Tornadoes were everywhere that day. An earlier wave had already come through in the morning hours, flattening homes and business in the Cahaba Heights area just a few minutes from our home. But we knew that was just a prelude. Now the storms were bearing down on cities all over Alabama, and by the time the final toll was counted, they had killed 243 people.
By the numbers, the system produced 358 confirmed tornadoes. Winds were measured at 210 miles per hour in the EF5 that destroyed Hackleburg and Phil Campbell.
We wouldn’t know the numbers for months, of course. For the moment, our focus was on one camera in downtown Tuscaloosa. Then the image disappeared as the winds either dislodged the camera or cut off the Internet service. The storm veered a bit to the north and swept through Tuscaloosa’s main commercial corridor, along McFarland Boulevard.
Forty-three people died in Tuscaloosa County that day, but the nightmare was just beginning. Thousands of homes were destroyed, along with schools, libraries and churches. The storms left 26 dead in Franklin County, 25 in Marion County, 21 in Jefferson County and 35 in DeKalb.
Out in Trussville, my daughter and her husband put on their bicycle helmets and huddled in the bathtub, as did thousands of others who normally take weather warnings in stride. The next day, there were bathroom tiles in their back yard. They could have come from anywhere. Once the sun rose the next morning, photos began to circulate of the devastation, as the people of my state cried, then went to work.
It was the only time in my life, I’ve ever appealed to my friends outside the state. Alabama’s a proud state, but this was simply too much for us to handle alone. We didn’t have to. The southbound lanes of highways into Alabama filled up with volunteers from all over the country, on their way to help us dig out.
Nick Saban called a halt to team training activities and put the Crimson Tide (one of whom had lost his girlfriend) to work removing debris and helping authorities in Tuscaloosa. Churches organized teams with chainsaws and people trained to use them.
As individuals, few of us knew what to do. People with the best of intentions were getting in the way of officials still seeking to rescue victims. I wandered into the old computer store where the Red Cross was setting up its operations center, and they welcomed an extra hand. For hours, we moved generators, water and other tools and supplies into place, where they could be inventoried and put into service. Thousands of others were doing the same with other relief organizations and churches. Months later, when the emergency operations finally began to close down and aid workers returned home, I was filled with gratitude. They had come to feel like old friends.
Looking back, I think April 27 was the day I fell in love with Alabama.