It is an incredibly frightening thing to see — to watch the finger of God* come down from the heavens and rewrite the history of our city. As of this writing, there are 45 confirmed dead, 990 injured and 446 missing.
Tuscaloosa. What a place. There is history here. This is where segregation fell in our state, when George Wallace finally stepped aside to allow two black teenagers to enter the University of Alabama. This is the town where Paul “Bear” Bryant carved out a college football dynasty. This is where we’ve won 13 national championships — more than any other program in the country. This is where kids in our state come if they want to practice medicine or law. Tuscaloosa, how my heart breaks for you.
I heard the rumble, low and constant, like a well-maintained heavy engine. I couldn’t see the tornado, but I could feel my scalp prickle. I was aware in the same way that prey is aware it’s in the presence of a predator — maybe if I was simply still, the predator would pass on by. It wasn’t until later, when I saw the damage on TV, that I knew how close the funnel had come to us. In less time than it will take to write about it, the tornado passed through Tuscaloosa, ripping through the center of the city — very nearly ripping our hearts out.
It crushed Greensboro Avenue from the 35th Street to 15th Street. Parts of 15th Street are gone. Simply gone. It was a shabby little stretch of shops and restaurants that marked the center of town. But they were OUR shabby shops and restaurants. And they’ll never be there again. It struck flossy Midtown Village and flattened the neighborhood behind the hospital, Cedar Crest. It hit businesses along McFarland Boulevard. It destroyed the strip mall where my office was located. There’s nothing left of the place but rubble. And then it hit Alberta City.
Alberta is predominantly black. The houses are — were — not strong. They blew up like so much kindling, turning the neighborhood into something you might see in Sarajevo or the West Bank. Yes, it is that bad. I’m not exaggerating. For every image you see in the media, there is another image that didn’t get shown. The city looks like a war zone.
Tuscaloosa is an odd mix — as is almost any college town. The kids come here expecting to get a four-year degree and leave for greener pastures. Many of them do just that. But many of them fall in love with Tuscaloosa and make their homes here after graduation. That’s what happened to Misty. And when we got married and moved into our own house here, it happened to me, too.
I didn’t realize it until after the tornado, but I love this city. I love seeing its people fight the good fight as we try to dig our way out of the rubble left by the tornado. There are people helping everywhere. There are people who need help everywhere. And we have pitched in. We have come together in the face of enormous adversity. We are family.
My own hometown was hit hard by a tornado that killed several people and destroyed the high school from which I graduated. I remember watching that on the news — I remember wishing I could be there for my friends and family. I remember thinking that no other disaster would ever hurt that bad again.
I was wrong. This one hurts just as much. This is home now. My son was born here. If I ever leave Tuscaloosa, I will carry it with me in my heart, the same way I carry Enterprise.
We will rebuild. This tornado is a setback. We are wounded. We are in shock. But we will come back stronger. We are Tuscaloosa.
*For the record, I used the term “finger of God* as an allusion to a powerful tornado — I do NOT think God punished Tuscaloosa or Alabama by sending this destruction. I hate that I even have to write this disclaimer, but I know someone out there will take it wrong.