TUSCALOOSA, Ala. (AP) – Despite the direst of warnings, the most skeptical among us didn’t fully believe it would be that bad.
Meteorologists and weather experts in the Tuscaloosa area had been circling April 27, 2011, for days, saying the atmospheric elements that were poised to come together could prove catastrophic to the region.
This time, though, they were not wrong.
“Knowing days in advance that April 27 would have bad weather, we published a story in that morning’s paper where we talked to a lot of local meteorologists,” said Adam Jones, then a reporter for The Tuscaloosa News. ”(Meteorologist) James Spann, with ABC 33/40, said it was shaping up to be a ‘red letter kind of severe weather day.’
“I’ll always remember those dire warnings the weather and emergency management community gave in the days before, and I think it saved so many lives because schools and many businesses closed for the day. I couldn’t imagine the horror if we’d been going about our lives as usual that day.”
Jones, 39, was one of several reporters for The News who worked hours on end to tell the stories of disaster, response and recovery from the 2011 tornado that tore a 5.9-mile path across Tuscaloosa, damaging or destroying more than 12 percent of the city along the way.
Now, he is among many who have moved on, either from The News, the newspaper industry as a whole or Tuscaloosa itself. But for those who immersed themselves each day in the shattered lives of a community, the remnants of that wreckage will, in a way, forever remain.
A STORY HITS HOME
News staffers were already on edge as the afternoon of April 27, 2011, crept into early evening.
A predawn tornado already had swept through Coaling that day, damaging and destroying homes in a small neighborhood and tossing a Northport firefighter from his home.
But for reporter Jamon Smith, the threat was even more real.
“I was the only person from our crew that was in the storm that happened two weeks before that,” Smith said, recounting how he cowered under desks at Sam’s Club off McFarland Boulevard when a tornado crossed through east Tuscaloosa on April 15.
“Because of that, I was already hyper alert (on April 27),” Smith said. “I definitely didn’t understand how big it would be or where it would hit, I was just thinking that we’d go out there to our job and do our thing, not really understanding how big it would be and that it would hit personally.”
Most of The News’ employees found themselves in the windowless basement of the facility off Jack Warner Parkway just after 5 p.m. as radio broadcasts and antenna TV reported the storm approaching, touching down and, ultimately, crossing into Tuscaloosa.
At the urging of then-City Editor Katherine Lee, many of these staffers were joined by their spouses, significant others and pets.
What they emerged to find was a world uprooted and overturned, sometimes getting lost in areas that, minutes before, they had known with casual familiarity.
Smith was dispatched to Alberta, where he was living at the time.
After parking on Helen Keller Boulevard and hiking the rest of the way in, he soon realized the lives of those he was passing would never be the same.
And neither would his.
“I remember trying to figure out where my place was,” Smith said, recalling how he searched for the Church’s Chicken restaurant and sign for 25th Avenue that he used to guide himself home. “There was just a big, giant pile of rubble, and people were literally crawling out of the rubble.”
That rubble was his apartment. And while nothing he owned was evident from the mountain of debris, his attention was drawn to a crowd that had gathered to help free a woman trapped underneath.
So, instead of worrying about his possessions, Smith went to work reporting and tweeting the rescue efforts that he saw all around him.
He saw a lone firefighter working to free a man from an apartment complex.
“It looked so futile. He really needed, like, a whole crew,” Smith said.
He listened as one man cried out that he’d just lost everything he owned.
“He just said, ‘I lost it all. I just paid it all off and it’s gone. Everything I worked for is gone,’ ” Smith said.
He watched dusty and dirty people push someone along in a shopping cart. He talked with a restaurant worker who survived the storm by hiding in a freezer. He witnessed an older white man help a younger black woman hobble her way to DCH Regional Medical Center.
And he heard the trapped woman cheerfully explain that she couldn’t feel her legs.
“She was so positive and upbeat and cheery,” Smith said. “Apparently, the rubble was on top of her and on top of her legs, but she seemed very, very happy, in spite of her circumstances.”
Across town, then-News photographers Michelle Carter and Dusty Compton waited in his truck for the storm to arrive.
They first perched atop the hill where Woods & Water operates before moving further to McFarland Mall and the storm’s projected path.
Compton, 36, said that he and Carter arrived just outside the former Shoe Station location as the winds began to howl.
“Michelle and I yelled at everyone to get inside and take cover,” said Compton, who left the paper in 2014 and now works as an adjuster for Allstate Insurance. “The manager took us all towards the back, and people hunkered down around the shelving.
“We both had our gear and I asked the manager to open the back door. When he did, there it was – like we knew it would be there. I pulled my camera up and started shooting and didn’t let up. It was surreal, almost eerily silent while it passed, and it felt so weird – like we knew people were dying as we watched it.”
He and Carter then drove to the corner of 15th Street and McFarland Boulevard, arriving moments before first responders.
The two split up and Compton headed toward Forest Lake along 15th Street, taking an estimated 2,000 photos.
Their photographic work was snapped up by The Associated Press, landing in almost 100 newspapers across the country and the front page of The New York Times.
But Compton said he couldn’t just watch and report. For a few humane moments, the line between objective observer and compassionate citizen blurred.
“I’d shoot and then help,” Compton said. “Someone would be looking for a loved one or friend, so I’d yell and pull debris with them and then move on.
“I was a journalist, a victim, and search-and-rescue all at once. Nothing can make you forget what you saw if you were in it like we were that day.”
TECHNOLOGY MEETS PREPARATION
As most of The News staff dispersed across the city, some remained in what was now a generator-powered newsroom to provide internet and social media updates as fast as possible.
“We had, just a couple of weeks before, held a newsroom session on how to use Twitter and I remember thinking that night after the tornado, ‘That was lucky timing,’ because for a long time, Twitter and texts were all we had to rely on,” said Lee, 50, and now the digital editor for the Portland (Maine) Press Herald. “The tweets were coming so fast, ‘Debris here. Bodies in the street. Trees down. Houses gone.’ I was told days afterward that some law enforcement officials were checking our tweets to see where the heaviest damage was.
“I never found out if that was true, but I do know people were relying on them and our website for information.”
Wayne Grayson, who now works as the online editor for Equipment World, a Randall-Reilly publication, said he relied heavily on Twitter not only to get information out, but also to know where to go for those initial stories.
And Jones, who now is a communications specialist at the University of Alabama, said he remembers coming in early the morning of April 28, 2011, to find one worker – former T-News web editor Chris Rattey – still working.
“He had been there all night to keep the website online and fresh in the face of widespread power outages and server issues,” Jones said. “I don’t think he’d slept, but he and his staff were dedicated to making sure the website was available and current.”
The hours seemed endless for most of The News staff in those initial days and weeks of response and recovery. With every story told, two or three others would immediately need reporting.
For Jones, his focus was soon directed to writing stories about those who had lost their lives in the storm, a total that would reach more than 50 before the tally was finished.
“It took weeks to publish those we were able to track down,” Jones said. “I’ll always remember talking with loved ones, many who survived the storm while their family member didn’t, and taking inspiration with how they were handling the loss and honoring their family.”
STORIES ARE PART OF THE STORYTELLERS
All who contributed to this story of remembrance said they were thankful to have been able to help add something, in some way, to the tale of Tuscaloosa’s transformation.
It was work that led to the staff winning multiple awards, including the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Breaking News.
Yet these accolades, no matter the prestige, all came with their own personal costs.
“I still have a hard time mentally grasping that day. It feels like a movie I saw, not something I actually lived through,” said Grayson, 33. “It was a horrible, awful thing, and I was blessed to have a job where I could contribute in that situation.
“But you don’t come out of that OK.”
Carter, 36, left in 2016 and now serves as the public information and human resources manager for the West Alabama Regional Commission.
She said the threat of severe storms continually sets her on edge, but that day still serves as the standard for both the power and futility of humanity.
“I go through a variety of emotions on it. I still think about things from a journalist’s perspective, but I’m not the same person I was then and journalism is definitely, sadly, not at all the same as it was back then,” she said. “That day I was reminded how little we are, that we ultimately have zero control if a tornado like that is bearing down on you.
“But I was also reminded that we are all people and, in times of tragedy, there are also great stories of heroism and kindness, and that day and the days beyond have brought up countless stories that working at The News gave me the chance to hear and share.”
Jones left the newspaper in December 2011 to join the staff at UA, and he, like Grayson, who departed the following year, acknowledged that the experience of covering the horror and the heartbreak remains fresh, nine years later.
“I feel the tornado was a deep wound, and deep wounds heal with a scar that reminds us both of the initial hurt and the incredible recovery,” Jones said.
But it is Smith, himself now a communications specialist at UA as well as an instructor in the College of Communication and Information Sciences, who is among those who lived through the recovery as he reported it.
The storm changed him in ways he did not foresee.
Initially unable to accept assistance from those who offered it, Smith said he spent the first few weeks bouncing between the couches of friends before settling for a while in a hotel room paid for by The New York Times Co., the then-owners of The Tuscaloosa News.
And it took even longer for him to accept, emotionally, what he had lived through.
But with each passing year, it gets a little bit easier, he said.
“Initially, I didn’t even want to hear about a tornado. I just wanted to get away from it, and I was sick of looking at the rubble and the damage,” Smith said. “I just feel grateful and blessed to have been a part of it and a part of The Tuscaloosa News at that time. It was the most important job I ever had in my life. I felt like we were a great benefit to the community and the city and proved that local journalism is still needed.
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