I was six months pregnant, climbing over fallen trees to see if my house still stood when the world around it had seemingly spun apart after an EF-4 tornado tore through Tuscaloosa on April 27, 2011.
When I smell the scent of natural gas or wet pine needles, it brings me back to that moment — that disorientation of knowing I was home, but not recognizing the place.
I knew the shocked faces of neighbors as they also climbed over fallen trees, trying to find a way out of our beloved neighborhood as I tried to find a way in. And what was once a beautiful historic district shaded by giant oaks had been turned into a place where I had never before seen so much sky. The big trees had fallen like toothpicks. Roofs had blown away, exposing the rafters underneath. And in my own yard, our oaks had fallen, parallel to our home.
Ours was one of the only houses in The Downs neighborhood that didn’t have a tree on top of it. Instead, our oaks laid strewn across the road, ripping up the yard with their giant red root-balls and tangled roots that stretched toward the sky.
When I got to our house, I rushed inside, thankful to know that our beloved cocker spaniel was OK. I went to my bedroom inside, in the partial dark as the sun was starting to set outside and there was no electricity. I bent over my bed, cradling my pregnant belly and sobbed, thanking God that our home had been mostly spared from the destruction.
At that moment, I had no idea how widespread and terrible the damage across Tuscaloosa really was, and how much loss of life the city would experience.
Only a quarter of a mile away, bodies were being pulled from the wreckage of Rosedale Court and people walked, zombie-like, up 10th Avenue seeking help, carrying what they could of their belongings.
In Alberta, people, bruised and bloody, did the same, walking in a daze down University Boulevard toward DCH Regional Medical Center.
A few days after the storm, a body was found in the backyard of one of the homes in my own neighborhood.
But in those moments after the storm, I didn’t know this. Instead, I went in my home and prayed. And I stared at my shoes.
And I had gotten up to go to work as a reporter at The Tuscaloosa News on the morning of April 27, 2011, wearing a lightweight white polka-dot top, a black maternity skirt and black, slide-on heels. We knew there was a chance for a major tornado that day, since one tornado had already hit Tuscaloosa early that morning. But for many of us reporters, it was another day at work.
Only it wasn’t. I went to work wearing heels that morning, not knowing that I’d be climbing over trees on my way home. I went to work that day one person, and ultimately came home someone else, as the shock of the destruction of my neighborhood and community started to sink in.
In my life, there are major moments that I look back on that have defined my adulthood thus far — my wedding day, the days my three children were born, the day my dad died— and the April 27, 2011 tornado.
That tornado taught me about loss, about the precariousness of life and the fact that physical things are just objects. They can be gone, literally blown away, in an instant. But that tornado also taught me a lot about the character of a community, that no matter a person’s race or religion or socio-economic status, when a natural disaster hits, when help is truly needed, tough times can bring out the best in people. In Tuscaloosa it did.
I still don’t know all the men who came with chainsaws in the hours after the tornado to help cut up our fallen trees and who cleared the road to make our neighborhood passable.
I do not know the Salvation Army volunteers who drove through our area daily for months afterward to hand out food to people who needed it, or the number of college students who handed out water, Gatorade, or a helping hand as we all muscled through clearing through a seemingly insurmountable level of tornado debris.
But I saw the goodness in people, both through living in a neighborhood hard hit by that storm, and also through my job covering the aftermath for months for the newspaper. Ultimately, as hopeless as I felt immediately after that storm, witnessing the love and outreach of people in the weeks that followed gave me hope for humanity.
It has now been 10 years since that tornado.
My 2-year-old daughter, the toddler who said “bye-bye” to the trees in our yard after the storm, is now a creative, independent middle-schooler with a mind of her own.
My son, the baby not yet born who I cradled in my stomach as I cried and prayed leaning over my bed, turns 10 this July. He has a passion for planes and a love for history, and, unfortunately, a particular fear when it comes to storms. I guess the tornado may have had its effects on him, too.
And we’ve since had a third child, a 6-year-old girl who has only heard about April 27, 2011, through what we tell her.
I worried, immediately after that storm, whether our neighborhood would ever recover, and whether our city would ever be the same. But while it is not the same now, our neighborhood ended up more close-knit than before. While we were friendly with neighbors before the storm, they became like family afterward. And although two empty lots in the neighborhood remain where homes once stood before the tornado, one was donated to The Downs and turned into a playground where our three kids spent so many hours at play.
We sold our beloved house last year in The Downs, but left a bronze plaque by the front door which states “This beloved house survived the April 27, 2011, tornado.”
The house survived, we survived. And while we were both changed by that storm, ultimately we became stronger because of it.
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Lydia Seabol Avant writes The Mom Stop for The Tuscaloosa News. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.