The Duncan Banner
It was nearly two years ago – April 27, 2011, to be exact – an EF5 tornado ripped through my hometown of Tuscaloosa, killing 64 people, causing billions of dollars in property damage, uprooting lives, inflicting immeasurable emotional stress and changing forever the college community of nearly 100,000 people in west Alabama.
A windshield driving tour then was devastating. Parts of the city I once knew so well were gone, literally. Destruction was visible everywhere, the tornado’s path a mile wide, vicious, mean and angry.
Homes, businesses, churches and schools were all affected. Blue rooftop tarps, a growing symbol of disaster, seemed everywhere. Piles of debris and rubble hugged street curbs. Twisted metal and splintered wood were common. Driveways led to empty lots once home to stunned occupants. Cars and trucks were upside down. Large, old oak trees and tall, skinny pines were expunged from the earth, snapped in two, ripped into pieces or simply eliminated from a once beautiful landscape that dramatically changed, exposing views hidden by years of foliage growth and maturity.
It was, simply, hard to believe. Staggeringly and tearfully so. Much has happened since that fateful day. Life has resumed to a pace of new normalcy that if not universally good, is certainly better.
A similar tour last week oozed of pride and hope, of recovery and resilience Tuscaloosa, as one hard hit neighborhood committed months ago, is coming back. The cold, concrete slabs that outline what used to be are still visible. Subdivisions remain shattered. Backyard views have been altered. Orange triangular “work ahead” signs remain. Acres of land that once were home to dozens of middle class houses near the 36,000-student university and 583-bed hospital that were both spared by the storm, are vacant. Stark, limbless trees are a reminder of what was. A corridor of power poles eerily marks an otherwise empty boulevard that once bustled with activity and commerce. A steel fabricating plant is no more. Neither is a woodworking plant. Or the city’s first ever shopping center. Or a school. Or a church. And dozens of homes are still in various forms of repair. But there is, again, optimism.
A city-wide plan to make Tuscaloosa better seems to be working. Good, long-term goals and decisions are a priority. Historic preservation maintains a significant value. Quality construction guidelines have been upgraded. Neighborhoods are. Life seems more precious, time more valuable, friendships more special. Though some pockets of the city have fared better and more quickly than others, the beginnings of a new history and a new heritage are starting to fall in place.
For the most part, those tarps and piles of rubble are gone. The sounds of chain saws have dulled. Signs of recovery and improvement are everywhere. Waist- and shoulder-high azaleas, dogwoods and wisteria are in full bloom. Tiny trees, anchored by coded wires, won’t replace the missing majestic oaks, but they signal the commitment to a long future.
So does work in The Downs, Glendale Gardens. Hillcrest, Wood Manor, Forest Lake, Cedar Crest, The Highlands and Alberta City, names foreign to you, but areas of charm and distinction there, each brimming not only with personality but determination. Some stately, columned homes survived. Others did not. The Central Church of Christ is building back bigger than ever. So is Alberta Baptist, whose new complex will energize a particularly hard hit area. Work is under way at University Place Elementary. A two-story windowless Masonic Lodge nears completion and it appears Wings of Grace Relief Center and Nehemiah’s Coffee House are now part of Forest Lake Baptist’s ministry. A small, but lovely and centralized, lake is full of water again, though most of the homes that once surrounded it are gone. Playground equipment is back in place at a neighborhood park.
Upscale residences atop trendy retail stores will replace a worn shopping center. Multiple apartment buildings for students are being built. Large, prestigious homes may have lost their privacy but not their appeal. And scattered, makeshift signs hint of more recovery. My beloved Tuscaloosa took an incredible hit and learned sadly there are few things more powerful, more destructive or more painful than a killer tornado.
But there is obvious strength, too, in unity and togetherness. Seeing and sensing that is impressive.
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