April 28th, 2011
May 3, 2011 § 11 Comments
May 2nd, 2011.
I woke up this morning from a dream where I was standing in the middle of Tuscaloosa at night looking at all the damage saying, “my city is ruined. my city is ruined. . . ”
I’m posting words that I wrote for the Tuscaloosa News that never got published. It’s our story from Thursday, April 28th 2011.
It’s Thursday April 28th. My friend Brittany Caferio and boyfriend Hunter Rayfield have returned to my home with bagels and five hour energy drinks. Hunter is CERT trained and we, along with his brother Alex are ready to go help our community. Brittny had lost power at 515 am on wedensday in the first line of storms and Alex who is a Junior at UA lost power after the storm. They both camped out at the house. Hunter and Alex both responed quickly to Cedar Crest the night of the tornado. Alex lived there last year. The sight was “unreal.” What they saw was upsetting and shocking . They turned off gas, searched houses and found casulities.
We have no cable at the house and saw on twitter that all volunteers were to meet at St. Mathias at noon. “Forget it,” Hunter said. “we’re going now.” We take two cars and park near DCH. I see incredibly long lines in fastfood restaurants. Traffic coming over the bridge is at a crawl. We pass the UA law school. A huge tree in the lawn. “I wonder where that came from.” Hunter said. We park and begin our walk to Cedar Crest. Hunter and Alex are walking at a very quick pace. I see lots of people wondering around. Students, old people. A police officer stops me and won’t let me past him because I don’t have a media pass even though there are people just walking past him. Brittany and I start to walk to DCH. Hunter and Alex go to Cedar Crest.
Brittany and I are scanning the DCH parking lot trying to see how we can get to McFarland. Before we see the dip in the fence that will take us across the train tracks we see what used to be 15th street. It’s completely unrecognizable. All we keep doing is gasping and saying “oh my god. It’s completely gone.”
As we walk down the train track we run into Sharnice. She is graduating from UA with a master’s degree. She seems upset and says she has lived here for five years and now that she’s leaving, the city has completely changed from what it looked like when she arrived.
Brittany and I look in disbelief at what used to be McFarland and 15th street. We side step down the steep embankment towards McFarland Blvd and the national guard. We walk towards Hobby Lobby. Steak out- gone. Full Moon- gone. Krispy Kreme- gone. Wiped out.
We see nothing but wreckage. We come upon the manager of Big Lots, Paul. He and his fellow employees are looking at the pile of rubble that used to be there place of work. That’s where we were, Paul says pointing to a pice of wood that is sticking up from the pile. We have scratches but no one got hurt.” He said he saw the tornado snap off some treesin front of the parking lot and that’s when he yelled at his employees to hide. “This is it!” he yelled as he ran to the safe place. We gave him a hug and told him we’re so glad that everyone is safe. “I really don’t know how any one survived.” Brittany says to me.
Walking up the street, What used to be World’s Gym to our right and a demolished smaller gym to the left. I’m taking photos when I well built man walks up and also starts to take photos with his phone. I asked if he was the owner at the gym. “No,” he replied. “I worked out here earlier Wednesday morning.” Brittany and I see the workout written on the dry erase board. I asked if I could take his photo and get his name. “Sure. My name is Roy Upchurch.” “Did you work at the gym?’ “ No, I play in the NFL.” “Why are you in town?” “I came back to train during the the walk out.” “Is everyone you know safe?” we ask, and he tells us they are. I thank him for talking to me and he tells us to stay safe. We march on.
The scene unfolding before us is from a movie. Hundreds of people are walking around. Displaced. Sightseeing. A tractor is flipped over where J and P construction used to be. The owner who is collecting his things from the rubble tells us, he can give us a really good deal on a tractor. We laugh and tell him we’ll pass!
I talk to a women who is sitting with her nephew. She is staring at her home and he has his head down. The only thing left standing she says is the laundry room and the closet where she, her daughter and granddaughter hid. “I was keeping up with the weather all day and my daughter cleared out a space just in case we had to go to the safe place.” She was watching James Spann and then ran into the closet. “Everything happened so fast. My ears started popping and then I looked up and saw sky. I put my head down and heard what sounded like the loudest bombs and guns going off around me and then I realized it was the walls being pulling apart. All I could think is we have to hold on to the baby.” I hug her and thank her for sharing her story. Her parting words were, “ We’re all fine. We’re all fine. Cars and houses can be replaced.”
Brittany and I walk on. We see students with animals walking down the street with friends. Houses torn apart but still standing. Trees gone. Everything feels big and open. We come up the hill and take a left towards Alberta City. We come across two Ameridys home health care workers. They couldn’t get in touch with any of their patients or their bosses so they just printed out their paitient list and started going door to door.
Druid City Glass looks like it imploded on itself. We turn right and see cars thrown on top of a heap of cars and stuff. “All my children and grandchildren were under there she says. 14 of us. We’re all safe. We only came out with scratches. Brittany and I stare in disbelief. “The wall was inches from my face.” She mimes the gesture. She is wearing the same clothes from yesterday. Her daughter washed it last night. It’s ripped in the back from where she struggled to get out. “It’s the only clothing have now.” Her eyes started filling with tears, “ I just feel so bad that my family came here to be safe.” “ And they are safe.” Brittany tells her. Her words are calming and the women agrees.
We talk to a man who is in a state of shock. His words are quiet. His three year old daughter dances in front of him. His house, still standing is in bad shape. No windows and tons of debris in side. I work at McDonalds on 15th street. I left an hour before the storm came. I drove to Holt to stay with my wife and mother in law. Everything is gone. We have to start over.” “Don’t lose hope. “ we encourage him. Your community is here to support you. He nods his head and his eyes fill with tears. I hug him and tell him I’m glad his family is safe. He gives me a strong hug and says, “all I know is that you have to get yourself right with God because he is coming for you any day.”
We’re on University. Complete Devastation. We walk pass what used to be CVS? Whatever is was is now being looted. Autozone, being looted. I get across the street from Churches Chicken. I talk to the Air Force ROTC from UA. They are handing out food and water. When asked if they were given orders to come out here, they said no. They just came out to help.
I see people standing in front of what used to be KFC. There is a electrical pole on top of it. One of the lady standing by him tells me it was the first KFC built in Tuscaloosa in 1963 and one of the first franchise in the state. I ask her if she was here when the tornado hit and she says no but he was. He says yes. He is holding a rolling suitcase and I ask him if he lived nearby and he said he lived across the street. (gone) he said he wanted to live close to work. His wife works on 15th street and there one year wedding anniversary is on May 15th. He shows me where he and seven of his co-workers were hiding in the chicken cooler. The side wall is gone. He points to the chicken rack and says, “we were hanging on to that chicken rack and we were hanging on to each other. I don’t ever want to go through anything like that again.”
I talk to Tuscaloosa fire and Rescue. They are coordinating search and rescue between volunteers and out of town firefighters from all over the state. They are doing a fantastic job. They are looking at the grids of Alberta City and are waiting to relieve the searches who have been out. “The faitality count is low,” says the captain, “because we’re waiting for the dogs to get here.” He then goes on to tell me a story of when he was responding to hurricane Katrina that the dogs they used down there were so good that it kept hitting on a spot where there was a murder five years before.
I see Pratville and Selma on the scene. A large group on workers from NUCOR is there assisting. They all came because they wanted to help. Three national guard memebers, one infantry two medics all aged 19 and 20 are on the scene. They too have just shown up to volunteer in the search and rescue.
I meet Northstar Paramedic Bobbie Banks. Her Northstar team was one of the first responders to the tornado aftermath. “DCH,” she says, “had it together. They had triage right at the doors so when we pulled up I could tell them what the injuries were and keep moving. Rosedale court was unreal. It was like straight out of a movie. The wounded and severly wonded were everywhere. We had double stocked supplies in our ambulances and we were taking 4-5 people at a time in the back of the ambulences. People were in the streets crying and yelling at us to stop and help and I had to tell them to hang on honey, help is coming, I promise. It was so hard.” When I ask her how she was able to drive over there and to DCH she just she just drove over a bunch of stuff. Bobbie had to transport victums to Birmingham hospital and she saw cars stacked up on each other on 359.
She introduces me to Debbie Blake. She is charge of Northstar for Tuscaloosa County. By now my skin is sunburnt. It’s hot and the dust from the disaster is starting to stir Iin Alberta City. She shows me footage of the tornado on her phone. As I talk to Debbie, Bobbie fields a call from her old partner, traveling nurse and paramedic Chris Smith. Nurses Lori Darden and Gerald Ramsey who flies the life flight helicopter show up. All volunteers.
Northstar ambulance is parked next to the Texaco. The old man sitting by it claims that his daughter owns it. “She wanted to sale it before the storm. I told her she just got a buyer, the government!” His son in law is cooking up the chicken for the rescue workers. It is chicken that was given to them by the KFC.
Gerald asks Chris how he was able to get into Tuscaloosa from Birmingham. I thought that he said he got a ride in with a state trooper or deputy sheriff becasue the joke was that Gerald said he couldn’t believe he got an escort because he knew all the sheriffs and Chris responded, “not all of them!” So I’m not really sure how Chris got to Tuscaloosa. He did say he tried calling the red cross to see where he was needed but they didn’t have anything together yet. It’s frustrating for him because he wants to help where it is needed. But when he calls to try and find out where to go and he can’t get through, it’s agirvatiing. “it’s always in these disasters, the comunicaiton just isn’t there. Even though it’s supposed to be.”
Debbie takes her crew over to La Rocca Nursing home. They have to move all the paitientst other facilites. Once their Debbie introduces me to Paula Causey. She too is volunteering her time to drive the school bus the patients are going to transported on. I talk to Lyman Hardy who runs the nursing home. He’s in a state of shock. We didn’t lose anyone but things are very badly damaged.” He and the dietitian show me the damage.
I watch Debbie, Chris, Lori, Bobbie and Gerald console and physically lift paitents into the school bus. They use such care and caution. Moving elderly, who are scared and can’t physically walk. The patients are scared and one woman starts yelling for help even though she is already on the bus. The EMT’s and La Rocca nursing staff calm her down. It’s hot out side and I’m sure it’s hot on the bus. I don’t see any complaints from the EMT’s. They work like machiens asking how many paitiens do they have left and they then load all the wheel chairs up on the back of the bus.
When they are done Chris is sweating but smiling. “Doing this really makes me feel good. I know I’m helping where people really need it.” One of the nursed who works at La Rocca breaks down and starts crying. She is upset because they’ve had to move all the paitiens. She says they are her family. The EMT’s console her.
Next stop is Holt. I’m speechless at what I see. Holt is completely gone. All the trees are gone. Debbie asks if they want to start with search and rescue. Everyone says yes. Because the weather was so bad Gerald wasn’t able to fly so he came and was a first responder to Holt. He found four people trapped under a house. Only one survived. He takes to the house and shows us how the rescue teams pulled up the floor boards to get to the victims.
Bobbie and Chris talk to volunteers from Havana. Everyone is getting irritated because they want to start searching but they have to wait for the deputy sherrif. Debbie does her best to try and move things along. Gov. Bently and his motorcade arrive in Holt.
The place is an unrecognizable ghost town. There are a few people looking through there houses and Chris wonders if they are okay and if they need to be evaluated. State Trooper Brett Christian helps the nurses as much as he can and tells them what he knows. He takes us to Crestline Mobile Home. It’s a abomination. It’s unrecognizable. Chris starts looking through the ruins. We learn they pulled three bodies from the ditch that morning.
We talk to the rescue team. They are watching the live dog. He gets no hits. As they are waiting for the dog someone down the street starts yelling they need the paramedics. The people that Chris saw earlier looking through what was left of there things have gotten into an accident. A lady has fallen hit her head. She is temporarily knocked out and they get her to safety. Search and Resuce now brings in the cadaver dog. He gets a hit. Everyone runs to the site but finds nothing.
The day is ending. They keep walking and talking. I ask Chris what’s next on his agenda. He says he would like go to Piedmont and maybe help out there. Lori and Gerald both agreed that sleep was on the agenda. Lori hadn’t seen her daughter in four days. Bobbie and Debbie show no signs of stopping so I don’t bother asking. I tell them awesome job guys. It gives me chills how you have handled and responded in these hours. Not once did they complain about their job. Even when they were lifting elderly paitients in the hot sun. Gerald ripped his shorts and just taped it up in the back of the ambulance. People want to help and volunteer and they are doing it because they want to. I’m grateful for this. Tuscaloosa is blessed for this.