Remembering April 27, 2011 in Tuscaloosa, Alabama: Listeners Share Their Photos and Stories [GALLERY]
Five years have passed since April 27, 2011. Alabama was devastated by a generational tornado outbreak that day; 62 tornadoes caused massive destruction as they carved their way across the state.
Tuscaloosa and its surrounding communities were hit especially hard. An EF-4 tornado reduced communities to rubble.
12% of the city was destroyed. Over 7,000 people became unemployed after losing their businesses or jobs. 1,257 homes were destroyed and over 4,000 others were damaged.
52 lives were lost.
We asked our listeners to share their photos and memories of that day, and the gallery above features those images. If you would like to share your story, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
2011 Tornado, Submitted by Belinda McMunn
5 years ago.... It's a day I won't forget and a day lot of people will never forget. I'm the mother of Ryan McMunn who you all know as McMunny. We live in north Alabama which was also hit very hard by this tornado. I was at work and my co-workers and I stood outside and watched knowing something bad was going to happen. The wind blowing the trees would circle one way and then the other. Something I'd never seen before. I lived through the 1974 tornado outbreak. My family was not personally involved in it but, it hit my high school and so many of my closest friends were displaced, homeless and injured. The stories that were told are ones I've never forgotten. Just like the students at UA, April 27, 2011 will never be forgotten.
We left work early but almost not early enough. The weather had already gotten so bad it was difficult driving home. My husband and I, along with my brother, took shelter at our aunts house. By the time I got there our power was out and we only had a radio to keep up with the weather situation. I kept hearing the weather was bad in Tuscaloosa and with both of my children living there I was becoming a hysterical mom. I kept trying to call but their phones kept going to voicemail or it would tell me my call would not go through. I was almost to the point of telling their dad I was driving down there when I managed to get a call through to our oldest son who was at work at Ol Colony golf course. He said everything was ok, not to worry (he had no idea at the time what had happened). A friends dad had called and told them not to leave the course. It had stormed badly there but no damage. I asked about Ryan and he said he was sure he was fine. He asked me how I had been able to get through on the cell phone because no one had any service. I'm sure it was the Lord's way of keeping me off the roads. I hung up with him and dialed Ryan again and he answered. He said he was fine and that he and Lance (their roommate) were on their way to check on Shannon (Lance's girlfriend). He just said, "Momma, the roads are blocked and it looks like a war zone".
I've never been so scared and so happy to hear my sons voices in all my life. Knowing I could not get to them was the most frightening thing I've ever lived through.
The football coach where my husband and I and both boys finished high was Shannon Brown who lost his daughter, Loryn in the tornado. For so long I felt so guilty that I was able to speak to my sons and that they were safe. I still can't imagine what he and so many others went through waiting to hear their sweet child's voice only to find out they would never hear it again.
I think of that day often and thank God He spared my sons. Everyone has tragedies. And I know this will not be the last one we see but, as a parent seeing her children go to the aid of those in need makes me proud. I know they learned a lot during and after the 2011 tornado but I also learned a little more about the men I call my sons.
Five Years Later, Submitted by Tia Bearden
Ahh, the haze of being a first time mom. You’re both newborns, really-- you and the baby, trying to find your place in the world.
April 27, 2011. My daughter was 5 weeks, 4 days old. I breastfed and she had been cluster feeding for a few days, a growth spurt, I’m sure. There had been a bad storm in the early morning hours and I had been up for it. We were up at 3, 5, 6:15am feeding. Alison slept on my chest as I laid on the couch swapping between watching James Spann for the weather and marathoning seasons of Gilmore Girls on DVD.
Jeff, my husband, went to work and Alison and I ate and slept and watched TV. She napped and I took a shower.
Jeff came home and my grandmother called for probably the third time that day, reminding me to watch the weather, there were tornadoes headed our way.
There are always bad storms headed this way. They always miss us.
I was irritated at the phone call. People were always calling me, texting me, tweeting me wanting to know how Alison was. No one cared how I was.
I flipped back to the weather and James Spann said that there was a huge tornado on the ground headed towards Tuscaloosa and everyone needed to take shelter. But it looked like it was in Northport to me. I couldn’t place where it was and I didn’t recognize the places that the meteorologist was calling out.
Jeff yelled that a tornado wasn’t going to take away his TV before he got to use it. (A new TV – the last splurge before we had Alison still laid new in the box between the love seat and the bar). I put Alison in her car seat and fastened her in while Jeff wrapped the tv box with towels and trash bags. He shook his fist at the sky.
James Spann, with his suspenders on was urging everyone on 15th Street should have already been in their emergency place. I stared at the tornado on the screen. I couldn’t process it for a few seconds.
Another phone call from my grandmother. YES we are in our safe place. YES we have the baby in there with us. NO we are not idiots. I need to go. YES I will call you after it’s over.
We hunkered down in our bathroom with the current TV blaring, just to be safe, you know, because James Spann said 15th Street and that’s where we live. But maybe he meant another 15th Street. One in Northport?
The power cut off and Jeff and I shared a panicked look. He slammed the bathroom door shut and laid over Alison’s car seat, and I laid over him, all of us in the floor of our tiny townhouse. I hadn’t had swept or mopped the floor in here since I had the baby.
A loud sound like a train had derailed the tracks beside our home filled the bathroom. The walls began to shake and the thoughts and air were sucked out of the room, much like a dementor’s kiss.
Three breaths-- then the air was rent with the cacophony of hundreds of car alarms and screams.
I check Jeff, Alison, and myself. We are all fine, not a scratch. Well, Alison is mad and is screaming and trying to punch Jeff out of her personal bubble, even at 5 weeks, 4 days. But other than that everything is perfectly contained in our little bathroom.
“We have to open the door,” I tell Jeff.
“We have to help.”
“As long as we are in here everything is safe,” he says.
“We can’t stay in here forever.”
He finally concedes.
The whole living room could be blown away. We could be standing outside when we open this door. We take a deep breath and open the bathroom door.
The living room is dark, but everything is still there. We jointly exhale and give each other a little hug. Jeff runs around checking the house. Alison and I stay in the bathroom. I sit on the closed toilet and take her out of her seat, and rock her from side to side, and tell her that everything’s going to be alright, even though I know it’s not.
Jeff comes back, face pale. Alison’s window is broken, the privacy fence has blown into the window over the kitchen, but it’s okay. Everything else inside the house is fine.
Then he opens the door and I start crying. The mailboxes have blown into his car. The entire back window of my car has been knocked out. Glass is everywhere and the screaming and car alarms intensifies.
Jeff helps the neighbors remove debris that is blocking their front door so they can get out. Our apartment has become home base. We are the middle unit, we sustained the least amount of damage. Jeff runs back inside and grabs a camera. “You have to see this, but I don’t want you and Alison out in it,” he says. “I’m going to see how I can help.”
He’s gone and my phone starts flooding in with texts and voicemails and the network is jammed. I can’t call out. I can’t get my texts to go through. My family is panicking and I can’t let them know that I’m okay.
I try Jeff, but of course, I can’t get through.
Someone runs in my house. “They said another one is headed for us!”
I hand Alison to a friend of a neighbor and find the radio and attempt to find a station, but everything’s down. I can’t get it to work.
The smell of natural gas starts filling the house.
I panic and throw some clothes into a bag and run upstairs and grab diapers, wipes, and clothes for Alison.
Jeff returns and the pictures are worse than I even thought possible.
Everything is gone.
Well, not gone. Gone implies that there is nothing left, that it is empty.
Everything is rubble and debris and I don’t know what it is that he took pictures of.
The only way I knew it was Krispy Kreme was because of the signature green color of the menu on the wall of the drive thru. Jeff said the smell of donuts lingered in the air.
Nightfall was quickly approaching and gawkers were filling the area. People were already scouring and looting the area.
We accepted some clear plastic drop cloth and duct tape from the destroyed Sherwin Williams and taped over the gaping hole of the back window of my car.
We got as much glass out by hand as we could and then grabbed blankets and layered them in the backseat. We put Alison’s car seat in and covered her with another and we tried to get out of Tuscaloosa, but it was too late. Alabama Power and so many other utility companies and people had rushed to our aid, which was wonderful, but by the time my little red Honda made it to Northport where there were working cell phone towers and power there wasn’t a room left anywhere.
“I wonder if this is how Mary and Joseph felt!” I exclaimed absurdly. “No room at the inn.” Jeff laugh and I burst into tears.
We couldn’t get to my family in Winfield, and they couldn’t get us. There had been other tornadoes and damaging winds. The road was blocked by trees. It wasn’t safe.
We drove around for hours, trying to find somewhere to stay. We finally found the hotel in Vance (it’s a hard place to find when the power is off), and they charged us full price for the room, even though there was no power.
It was just nice to have somewhere safe to lay our heads for a few hours. My c-section scar pulled and burned with each attempt to get up in the high bed.
We drove back to the apartment in the wee hours of the morning and grabbed Jeff’s uniform and he went to work. The road to Winfield was still impossible to get through, so Alison and I drove around town, what used to be our town, what will always be our town and cried.
I pulled into the parking lot of McFarland mall and turned on B101.7 and nursed Alison amidst the broken glass in my car. I held her and cried as I listened to Meg and Greg and all of the others take call after call, requests for help pouring in and college boys that weren’t quite men, calling in saying that they had chainsaws, where could they help?
And I sat there and wondered how could I help? I wanted to help, but what could I do? I was just a newborn mom with a newborn baby and my broken heart over my broken city. This wasn’t something I could fix.
I helped in the only way that I could. I followed a ton of different social media accounts and retweeted so much stuff.
It still doesn’t feel like I did enough. I don’t know that any retweet, any Facebook post, if anything I did helped. But maybe that wasn’t the point. Maybe the point was to sit back and be helped when we needed it the most.
5 years later we are here, Tuscaloosa. We are no longer broken. We wear our scars, but are all the more beautiful for it.
Our love runs deep.