Five years ago a series of devastating tornadoes ripped through west-central Alabama. This week on Alabama Public Radio we’re looking at the impact of these storms five years later. A-P-R student reporter Josh Hoppenstein spoke with University of Alabama students past and present to get their take on the storms.
“This is a large, violent tornado coming up on downtown Tuscaloosa, be in a safe place right now.”
On April 27, 2011, TV weatherman James Spann’s jacket was off and his sleeves were rolled up. Local viewers in tornado prone Alabama knew that meant trouble.
“Guys are we going to need to retreat or what?”
Spann’s vantage point was from a television studio in Birmingham. Others were a lot closer.
“We didn’t really know the tornado was coming, everything was just business as usual.”
That’s Bobby Porter. He was a sophomore in Tuscaloosa the day the twister hit.
“People were out enjoying the day and towards the afternoon, about four o’clock was when storms were supposed to be rolling in and everyone went home to hang out.”
“Well for me it was the usual.”
That’s Heather Banks a Tuscaloosa native. Even though she knew the potential danger of the tornado, she didn’t think of it as anything more than the average tornado warning.
“You never know really what to expect. It just happens so many times, since I’ve lived here, that there’s never really too big of an alert for us. We just wait kind of wait and see what happens.”
As the afternoon went on, the storm picked up and made its way into Tuscaloosa. The tornado would make its way down 15thstreet where then third year student Zach Rickoff was living.
“My roommate is the first one who actually saw the clouds turning and everything and I heard him screaming in the other room and so I went in there and we stood on the balcony, for a couple of minutes, and just this thing , you know, spinning and it was huge.”
Though the tornado its self was frightening, the behavior of it was what worried Rickoff even more.
“We saw it not going left to right or anything or right to left we just saw it staying still so we thought it was coming right towards us and that’s when I got pretty scared and just took off to the stair way.”
The tornado that Rickoff described would go on to cause damage to much of Tuscaloosa. After the storm had passed Bobby Porter could not believe what he saw.
“I just remember looking down towards McFarland seeing the neighborhoods completely leveled out. I got out and actually my car was totaled just from the wind damage and debris that was hitting my car.”
Porter would see more of the damage when he went to see friends in Alberta City.
“I do remember shortly after going out to one of the fraternity brothers of mine and he lived out in Alberta where it got hit really hard and they had two jeeps in the parking lot and they were thrown through the house into their basement, their jeeps were. It was a sight to see.”
The Druid City has recovered so well from the tornados that students, who had never seen Tuscaloosa before, such as freshman Parker Jacobs, would have never guessed the town was even hit by a tornado.
“I didn’t even know that the tornados hit Tuscaloosa until I came for Bama Bound this past summer in June of 2015.”
While students newer to Tuscaloosa may not know about the affects the tornadoes had, older students are still cautious when the threat of tornados are present.
“Everyone kind of goes into panic mode, there’s a lot of chaos.”
That’s Cameron Bauman and he is a senior.
”We get emails, texts, phone calls you name it, including our parents just to make sure they don’t have an incident like what we had four years ago with the tornado.”
Though he wasn’t in Tuscaloosa in 2011 he knows from what he heard from his dad who helped with clean up relief and students who were here in 2011 that tornado threats should be taken seriously.
“It is definitely scary every time we do get that alarm and hopefully we don’t have to go through something like that again.”
While severe weather events like tornados can come out of nowhere, there are precautions that can be taken according to Dr. Lee Keyes who is the executive director of the Counseling Center at the University of Alabama.
“Stay informed; be aware of your surroundings in the news. This will help you prepare for whatever might be coming.”
Dr. Lee Keyes and his staff were stationed across campus to help students and the people of Tuscaloosa cope with the aftermath of the storm. After helping people with their initial reactions to the tornado, support groups were set up and information was put online for people to look at. Even today there are people who develop issues because of storms.
“Some people do develop post-traumatic stress disorder PSD. Many people don’t meet quite the criteria for that, but they still have a traumatic type of response to a storm.”
The events of April 27th 2011 will not be forgotten and some damage may never be fixed. However, in the aftermath of the tornado, some, like Heather Banks believe there is an upside.
“I mean it’s a disaster, it’s horrific, it’s horrible that it happened, but I think the whole towns come out better in the end.”
For APR News I’m Josh Hoppenstein in Tuscaloosa