News From Terre Haute, Indiana

July 8, 2012

MARK BENNETT: Tuscaloosa is rebuilding lives

Mark Bennett
The Tribune-Star

Tuscaloosa, Ala. — Tuscaloosa, Ala.

Two images immediately catch the attention of newcomers to the Tuscaloosa neighborhood of Alberta.

Tall trees, stripped of their limbs, with clusters of new leaves sprouting from their trunks.

And vacant, rectangular slabs of concrete, scattered along most of the streets.

Both visuals serve as reminders of six horrific minutes of April 27, 2011. At 5:10 p.m. that day, a towering tornado churned through this Alabama city, home of 93,000 residents where gas stations, restaurants, apartment houses and car bumpers bear the slogan, “Roll Tide,” in honor of their hometown team — the University of Alabama Crimson Tide. The destruction was vast. The tornado rated as an F4, the second-highest status on the Fujita Scale, and measured more than a mile wide. Fifty-three people died in Tuscaloosa. The storm killed 253 people in Alabama, part of a record, three-day outbreak of 358 tornadoes across seven states.

Many physical and emotional scars remain. Those naked concrete slabs and lonesome trees are the easiest to see, along with yard signs offering free counseling for tornado-related stress.

Swirling, 190-mph winds damaged or destroyed 12 percent of the city, including 5,362 residential structures and many houses that once rested on those concrete pads in Alberta. Nearly 16 months later, many of those foundations still lay bare. Those howling gusts and updrafts that sucked entire homes into the black sky also ripped away all but the sturdiest limbs from the trees. Small starts of green now emerge from the tops of the trunks.

Some storm survivors are rebuilding their lives around what the tornado left, just like those trees.

Some left, unable to continue a paycheck-to-paycheck lifestyle with a ruined house and no job. The tornado instantly erased 116 businesses, according to Birmingham News and Tuscaloosa Forward calculations, and severely damaged another 240 firms, ending employment for 10 percent of the population. Local schools’ enrollments have dropped 2 percent.

Many of the modest homes that sat atop those empty concrete pads are now just part of the 1.5 million cubic yards of debris cleared. That’s enough rubbish to fill Bryant-Denny Stadium — the dominant figure on the city’s horizon, where the revered Paul “Bear” Bryant once roamed the sidelines — five times. Just rocks and stray household items linger on the lifeless home foundations.

Last week, a small group from Maryland Community Church in Terre Haute saw the completion of two success stories in that Tuscaloosa district. The Terre Haute crew, serving with the Samaritan’s Purse disaster relief agency, added to a list of more than 26,000 volunteers from dozens of organizations around the continent who have assisted with Tuscaloosa’s recovery, including many more folks from the Wabash Valley. Last Friday, the Hoosier volunteers witnessed dedication ceremonies at two families’ homes, completely rebuilt by donation-funded Samaritan’s Purse labor and resources.

Speaking from their front porches, the homeowners told stories of survival that left few dry eyes among the neighbors, family, friends and volunteers gathered outside the new front doors. Their words of faith, hope, determination and gratitude also acknowledged the thin line between their recovery and those unoccupied foundations down the street. Many who lived to tell about the tornado wondered how and why they were spared as refrigerators, metal sheets and ceiling rafters hurtled overhead, and their own houses collapsed upon them.

Six minutes. One storm. Everything changes.

On rides through the Tuscaloosa neighborhoods in the Samaritan’s Purse trucks last week, it was hard not to fixate on the abandoned slabs and the amputated trees. It reminds passers-by of the temporary nature of things we accumulate on those 40-foot-by-60-foot foundations. An aerial photograph of those rectangles would reveal how tiny they are in comparison to the surrounding community, nation and world. Do our actions on those small spaces help, hurt or ignore others around us? How willing are we to go outside that comfort zone on behalf of others in need?

If, in an instant, all of our “stuff” stored on that rectangle blew away, would we be thankful to just still be breathing and satisfied with the person left standing?

New homes and businesses under construction in Tuscaloosa begin with a “safe room.” In a residential structure, those rooms double as a master closet, utility room or — in the case of Samaritan’s Purse homes — a bathroom. Safe rooms feature thick steel doors, reinforced walls and ceilings, designed to withstand winds up to 250 mph. To meet Federal Emergency Management Agency codes, the cost of a safe room ranges from $6,600 to $8,700. Last spring, the country music group Lady Antebellum donated $70,000 for the construction of nine safe rooms in Henryville following an F4 tornado that devastated that southern Indiana community. In Tuscaloosa last week, Terre Haute volunteers helped install a safe room door.

The typical home safe room holds up to 16 people and measures 8-foot-by-8-foot. If the concept works correctly, those occupants could emerge from a safe room unharmed to see everything else beyond those 64 square feet of protection gone.

I admire the people in Tuscaloosa who climbed out of the devastation 16 months ago and said, “Thank God, I’m alive. I’ve got more time, and I’m not going to waste it.”

Mark Bennett can be reached at (812) 231-4377 or