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Outpouring of support will help tornado victims heal
JJ Apodaca traveled from Tallahassee, Fla., to help Tuscaloosa, Ala., after a powerful tornado struck the city April 27. He and others spent several days providing door-to-door distribution of food and water to heavily damaged neighborhoods throughout the city. - photo by Wally Smith

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Maybe there's hope after all.

It seemed unfathomable, winding through the mangled wreckage left in the wake of a monstrous tornado that ripped through Tuscaloosa last week.

The tornado, an EF4, carved a swath of destruction that stretched almost six miles long and at least a mile wide through the bustling city, home to 93,000 residents and the University of Alabama.

The storm system that spawned the Tuscaloosa twister began in Mississippi and packed a terrible punch on its 380-mile trek to North Carolina, spitting out other massive tornadoes across the region.

As of Tuesday, there had been 339 deaths attributed to the April 27 storms that struck Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Mississippi, Tennessee and Virginia. Two hundred and fifty of those deaths are in Alabama and 40 in or near Tuscaloosa. That toll is likely to climb as at least 80 in the city remain missing.

Wally Smith, my husband and also a graduate student at the university, survived the storm and sought shelter on campus.

He and others watched in silence as the twister struck not even a mile away from them. Two hundred and fifty miles away in Flowery Branch, I also watched live video of the storm broadcast online, terrified as it moved closer to campus.

Minutes after the funnel cloud tore through the city, Wally and other students walked the half mile to McFarland Boulevard, a business and residential district caught in the storm's path.

He recalled the devastation that lay before him, cars tossed with ease into buildings and homes and businesses that had been standing that morning suddenly just gone. The only sound he remembers as people gathered to console and aid each other was a massive piece of sheet metal creaking as it hung from a nearby power line.

Braselton Town Manager Jennifer Dees, an Alabama alumnus, still has friends and family that live in Tuscaloosa. Everyone survived, but Dees admitted those first few hours after the storm were harrowing. With cellphone towers felled and power outages throughout the city, communication was almost impossible.

"I've got a really good friend who lives here in Georgia and her stepson goes to Alabama and every house on his street was taken out and he lost his roof, the door, all the windows in his car got broken out, but his house had a storm cellar and he was in it, so he was fine," she said. "It's really scary when you've got kids and you can't be there and you don't know where they are and you can't get through on the phone."

Despite the heartache and tragedy of that day, something amazing also arose from the rubble. Within a day, donations and volunteers began flooding Tuscaloosa. On Friday, Wally and several friends hiked through one of the hardest-hit areas, a neighborhood known as Alberta City, pulling wagons brimming with water bottles and food.

Though in shock from the devastation, repeatedly telling me, "Katie, it's bad," Wally said he was amazed at the community's resilience. Churches organized volunteer centers, putting together care packages and lunches for survivors. One of the local radio stations stopped playing music, instead spending all day directing people to spots across the city and state where they could help or receive aid.

Others drove from Arkansas, Georgia, Florida, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, North Carolina, Tennessee and Texas to help.

A California police department even sent four Spanish-speaking officers to translate for Tuscaloosa's Hispanic population.

"Throughout the entire day, I was struck at the sheer number of people willing to drop their own responsibilities and come together to do whatever was necessary for those they had never met," Wally said. "Despite total devastation, everyone in the damaged area was calm, measured, and, surprisingly had very good spirits and occasionally even maintained a sense of humor. There was a general feeling throughout the city that we would make it through this, and that we all had each other's back."

Some in Hoschton also pledged support, donating money and supplies.

Driving down Interstate 20 on Saturday toting some of those donations to Tuscaloosa, I saw at least three other stocked vehicles headed across the state line.

One church van splashed across its windows "Teens for Tuscaloosa," and other cars boasted flags bearing the university's unmistakable crimson "A."

Dropping off the supplies at a local Methodist church, I joined Wally and others who were again making their way through the city, delivering food and water.

Observing the carnage from the back of a pickup truck was heart-wrenching and much worse than the photos and videos broadcast on the news.

Severed trees were strewn across the landscape like matchsticks, homes and businesses obliterated as if one by one, they had exploded from within. Power lines hung limply from severed poles and people's personal belongings littered almost every inch of the clay-packed ground.

It was unbelievable to see people who had lost everything give us a brief smile and "God bless you" after being handed a water bottle. It was awful not being able to do more to help them.

That generosity spanned across Georgia, as well. The West Jackson Fire Department sent several of its firefighters to Catoosa County where an EF4 tornado with winds of 175 mph touched down last Wednesday, part of the same system that slammed Tuscaloosa.

The tornado traveled through Ringgold and Cohutta and into Tennessee carving a 13-mile path, killing eight people and damaging or destroying between 75 and 100 homes.

Fire Chief Ben Stephens and three other firefighters left at 2 a.m. on April 28 for Ringgold. "When we were getting off the interstate, it was just wiped out," he said of the city.

The department canvassed a 15-block area for survivors or bodies, though they didn't find anyone. They also helped clear trees from driveways and handed out food and water. Stephens said surprisingly, people remained in good spirits, some even asking how they could help their rescuers. The department returned home later that day, but Stephens called a day later to say the department was returning to Ringgold on April 30 to again offer aid.

In both Ringgold and Tuscaloosa, at several home sites where nothing more than a pile of splintered wood remained, someone had erected a tattered American flag, a sign that while April 27 was a horrible, life changing day for many, with a little help, tomorrow might just be better.

It will be tough rebuilding, there's no doubt, especially when the news trucks depart and the spotlight moves elsewhere.

If the outpouring of love and generosity witnessed this weekend continues, though, there is hope that Tuscaloosa, Ringgold and other areas affected by last week's storms will find the strength to heal.

Katie Dunn is a reporter for The Paper, a sister publication of The Times. She can be reached at

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