Two years later

Thunder broke, lightning flashed and I was awakened just before daybreak, perhaps a mere foreshadowing of what was in store.

It was 6 a.m. and suddenly I was no longer asleep, struggling to decide whether or not to continue sleeping or get an early start to my day.

I had a paper to write, a meeting to attend and ton of things on my mind. All of those things could wait. I fell back asleep.

***

For two weeks I knew I wouldn’t be returning to the University of Alabama. Shockingly, it had nothing to do with my grades. The funding just wasn’t there. As a student who had relied on federal and private student loans for three years, the likelihood of a fourth year of out-of-state tuition being granted by a private loan company was minimal.

I was worried. So worried that I lost sleep in the weeks leading up to that day. Three years of friendships, progress and education were about to be thrown away. Anger and doubt clouded my thoughts.

Nevertheless, I had to seek help. I applied for assistance, asked for money from the school and I was running late for a meeting to talk about potential resources available through a local church.

The meeting ended and there did not seem to be much hope of a positive outcome. I left the Ferguson Center quickly. Storms were on the way and there had already been a reported death in Mississippi.

I left campus and drove towards my apartment. I sped. I was angry. I saw the clouds in the sky and I was worried.

***

When I got home I did what every poor college kid does after a day on campus; I reheated some pizza in the toaster oven and turned on the television. I flipped to local weather coverage to see that there were a number of storms moving towards Tuscaloosa.

Earlier that day I had purchased a camping lamp. We didn’t have any flashlights and I knew we would likely lose our power. I opened the lamp and put the batteries in it, anticipating having to use it later on in the evening.

I looked outside because I could hear children screaming. A kid we called Fat Albert was playing basketball with another one of his friends. I noticed the sky. It was an eery, odd green color.

While watching the weather coverage I saw a tornado drop to the ground. My heart sank.

I tweeted this photo out just moments before I realized what was happening.

I tweeted this photo out just moments before I realized what was happening.

“Eventually it will be moving up U.S. Highway [369]. Well, it’s going up 11 right now,” meteorologist Mark Prater said. That was our cue.

We took chairs into the bathroom and sat down with the lamp turned on. Within seconds I could hear it.

I turned the light off and my brother shut the bathroom door. The noise was loud and sounded just like a freight train or a massive gas station car wash on top of your house.

The sounds of trees being uprooted startled me. We knew we weren’t just hearing straight-line winds. We were in the middle of a tornado.

Glass shattered and the air inside the bathroom felt as if it was being sucked out. My brother pushed with all of his weight against the bathroom door to keep it shut. The shower curtain was floating, perhaps because of the air being sucked out of the room. It looked like a cape rather than a curtain.

And then it was over. My ears popped. Cell service wasn’t working properly but somehow we got a call out to grandparents who lived in Birmingham.

We opened the bathroom door. Where once the first thing the apartment smelled like when the bathroom door opened was a slightly less smelly version of the bathroom, now it only smelled like a pine tree.

People screamed. My brother was the first one out of the bathroom.

“Oh wow. It’s all gone. It’s gone,” he said.

Looking out through the void where our door once stood I could see across the complex. The entire second story was gone, the only thing remaining being boards and items strewn in every direction.

As I stepped outside I saw neighbors, people I had never seen before, going door-to-door asking if people were okay. Everyone seemed to be alright. But what about the people on the second floor? Surely there were people in those places.

Just then, a neighbor came rushing over in front of our apartment.

“That’s my son. My baby. He lived there. That’s my baby,” she cried. She was inconsolable. Her son lived above my apartment. Only floorboards remained.

Screen Shot 2013-04-26 at 1.54.56 AM

Charleston Square, before and after the storm

I left to go to the front of the complex. Through broken Twitter timeline refreshes I noticed that there was another storm reportedly on its way. A firefighter was already on the scene. I asked if he knew about the other storm, but he didn’t. He told me to go to shelter.

“Where’s the shelter located,” I questioned.

“Somewhere that has a roof on it,” he replied. He was noticeably flustered.

That certainly narrowed our options.

“University Village looks fine. If you can make it through those streets, maybe go there,” he said.

I turned around and took a glance at the entire complex. The second story was demolished — no roofs, walls gone. The first-story apartments were damaged with walls caving in, windows broken, doors thrown off hinges, pipes busted. But the entire front-left side of the complex was in a heap.

As I walked around to the right of the complex I saw through the breezeway people rushing to someone lying on the ground. They were huddled over whoever it was.

My landlord came around the corner. She asked if I was okay. While we were talking, a woman came rushing to her. The woman was crying.

“I think she’s gone. They’re trying. Or they tried,” she said. I stood and stared for a second, but I didn’t really understand what she was referencing. There was so much going through my mind.

I turned and hustled towards my apartment. As I was halfway there I stepped on a board. That board had a nail in it. That nail went through my shoe and into my foot.

Having lifted my foot to see that there was a board attached to my foot, I sat on the ground and ripped out the nail.

I ran back to the apartment where my brother was packing a backpack full of clothes, our passports, birth certificates and other vital documents. He grabbed some outfits. I grabbed four pairs of underwear, because if I was gonna be displaced there was no way I was going to be displaced while wearing the same underwear for two days straight.

A sock was conveniently sitting in the middle of my bedroom, because who doesn’t keep dirty clothes all over their floor? I took my shoe off and wrapped my foot in the sock.

We set off for University Village. Somehow, someway we made it through the streets between 27th Street and University Village. Hardly any of the houses were still standing. People were walking around in a daze, likely in shock that their entire community was decimated.

I called the number of the only person I knew who lived in the complex. She didn’t answer. Two kind souls from University Village stepped on top of the metal fence so that we could climb over with our stuff and enter the complex.

Unsure of where to go, we walked as quickly as we could towards the back of the complex. As we made it around the corner and came upon the complex’s main office I saw a familiar face.

An old friend from my first two years of college was looking for people to help. He saw us carrying a cardboard box and backpacks and immediately rushed over, grabbed the box and took us to his apartment.

There were five or six of us now — me, my brother, my friend Matt, his girlfriend Nicole and a few of his friends. His girlfriend took me to their bathroom and washed my foot off with soap and water.

After a few minutes, most of them left to go see if they could help other people. When they returned, they left to go to another one of their friend’s house to see if there was any damage. Cathie, one of Matt’s friends, lived in a bottom-floor apartment. She took me and my brother down there. If another storm was coming we wanted to be on the bottom floor.

No storm came, the sun set and the city I had grown to love was left in shambles by a massive tornado. It was dark, we were with a girl we had never met before that day and we were, quite frankly, emotionally shaken up.

We decided to get into Cathie’s car and try to make it to campus. My friend Matt Patton was in a dorm with a bunch of other guys, and that seemed like a better place to sleep than in darkness only 200 yards away from our destroyed apartment complex.

What was usually a five minute (at the most) drive to campus took nearly two hours. Traffic was packed. We ventured down Hargrove Road and turned onto McFarland towards University. After making it down the road we were stopped by some cops.

“You can’t go any further. They’ve got the whole road shut down,” an officer with the Tuscaloosa Police Department said.

“We just need to make it campus. Can we please drive through and take that ramp to campus,” one of us, either myself or Cathie, said.

He let us go. We drove into darkness. No lights, no idea that what we were passing was the heart of our beloved city absolutely destroyed.

We made it to campus and met up with Matt Patton. Cathie slept in his bed, Matt slept on

The shoes I grabbed during after the storm.

The shoes I grabbed during after the storm.

the floor in the living room couch, and me and my brother “slept” on pallets in the living room.

“Slept”, because there was no power so the windows had to be opened all night, and we didn’t really sleep. Every noise startled us.

I replayed the day over and over again in my head. I prayed for peace. It didn’t come then. I trusted that it would eventually, but it wasn’t then.

All I could think about was Mia and Moses, the elderly couple who lived a few apartments down. I used to talk to Moses about Alabama football. I hoped they were okay. Later, when we returned to the complex to recover what we could, I watched as Moses discovered that his car was gone. Someone had hot-wired his Ford Taurus and taken it.

The next day we trekked to the complex. We couldn’t get in because there was a massive gas leak from the destroyed laundry facility. The only thing we knew was that a homeless man slept on my bed overnight.

What happened over the next week could take pages upon pages to describe. Those details are not important. We recovered what we could from our apartment after a few days: my mother’s dishes, some clothes, (somehow, our computers — which were sitting in the doorway the entire time).

We found a new place to live for only fifty dollars more per month. It was a one-bedroom apartment, so my brother and I would have to share a room, but that was the closest thing available with so many people displaced.

When we arrived to the new apartment, a local church I had visited on only a couple of occasions had donated everything. New furniture, new clothes, brand new beds, dishes and towels. They stocked our pantry.

Goodness overflowed from the hearts of people in Tuscaloosa those next few months. It was unlike anything I had ever seen before in my life.

It also wasn’t easy. I struggled with acceptance. I hated having new clothes, new furniture, new everything when so many people in Alabama had nothing. I was thankful they had been provided for me and my brother, but I wasn’t truly grateful. That didn’t come for a while.

Eventually I accepted it. I needed, it was provided. I was lucky to be alive. Every decision I made, every thought I processed happened with that perspective in mind — I was lucky to be alive. I needed to be thankful.

Now, two years later, that feeling has faded. Materialistic, instant-gratification societal norms seeped back into the way I process things, and for months upon months I lost sight of what was important in life.

Thinking about that day and the events that followed in the weeks after the storm have a way of changing my perspective. As much as I’d like to forget about that day, perhaps it’s a necessary reminder to make me thankful, grateful for the small things — the clothes on my back, oxygen, having a house, having food.

***

The city continues to recover. The lot where my apartment complex once stood is still just a grassy piece of land. I visited it on the one-year anniversary, and I plan to on the two-year anniversary.

But April 27 is a day that I will never forget. It’s a constant reminder of so many things. Dozens of images are burned into my memory and always come back to the forefront when I have discussions of those days.

It’s been two long years, but the nightmare of April 27th is still just as vivid today as it was in 2011.

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Youth, death and basketball

It was 1997 and video games had not yet entered my household. Entertainment was simple in uptown New Orleans. A small backyard with a chain-link fence was a great source of adventure. The banana trees were intriguing. They never reached full growth because I picked them before they were through growing.

The fence was perfect to use as a soccer goal. I stood between one post and saved my brother’s penalty kick attempts time and time again. He rarely scored.

Sometime during our family’s time in New Orleans I started waking up well before the rest of my family, wandering into the living room and watching SportsCenter on ESPN. I was fascinated by every sport and I wanted to play every one of them. I tried to watch any game that was on television. I memorized the team each player played for and each player’s name.

Before we moved to New Orleans my parents bought me and my brother a Fisher Price basketball goal. It wasn’t big, and it wasn’t real, but it made me feel like a superstar. I imitated Jordan as I soared through the backyard with my tongue out, slamming the inflatable basketball through the terribly small hoop.

I practiced the technique Mark Price taught me in a Sports Heroes book I read that year. One hand on a side of the ball, one hand on the back, aim for the square in the middle of the backboard and shoot, allowing the hand on the back of the basketball to follow through until the ball leaves the fingertips. I was Ray Allen before I even knew who Ray Allen was, and it was awesome.

My earliest memories of basketball are like most 20-something-year-olds in the 2000s. Michael Jordan was at the tail end of his career in Chicago, and his status as the league’s best player was already pretty well cemented. I watched with interest, albeit minimal, during the 1996 NBA Playoffs. I remember Shawn Kemp’s monstrous dunks and Detlef Schrempf’s funny name. His hair was my favorite part about the SuperSonics.

Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman won a title in six games that season. My family watched nearly every game. I’m not sure why we were attracted to basketball, as none of my family really seemed to enjoy it otherwise, but there was something about watching Michael Jordan play that made any game seem special.

I watched the next season as the Bulls won the NBA Championship again, this time against the Utah Jazz in six games. Jordan was magnificent. The Finals MVP averaged 32.3 points, seven rebounds and six assists. His otherworldly talent had not quite registered in my youthful mind. What exactly was I watching? All I knew was the Bulls were winning championships, Jordan was the greatest player my parents had ever seen and I couldn’t wait until the next season started.

The television coverage for the NBA really wasn’t as extensive as it is in 2012. If it was, I just didn’t notice it. I stayed up-to-date by reading box scores out of the Times Picayune. Rich Eisen and Stuart Scott were my greatest sources of information on television; their one-liners and phenomenal descriptions of each highlight reel fed my sport-hungry appetite.

By that time I didn’t have a particular team that I supported. Like many casual NBA fans during those years, I wanted the Bulls to do well so I could watch them on television when it mattered most — the playoffs.

That year, my parents hired a babysitter from a local university. Her name was Miss Leanne and she, like probably any babysitter would, let me and my siblings do whatever made us feel most comfortable when she watched us. The first night she babysat us we sat on the couch in our living room, ate popcorn and watched the Bulls play basketball.

She commented on how magnificent Michael Jordan was and then continued to let me eat popcorn in peace and watch basketball. It was pure bliss. The game finished and we ended the evening by watching music videos on an old VHS my parents had left. I didn’t miss my parents, probably for the first time when experiencing a new babysitter, and I couldn’t wait for the next time Miss Leanne would watch us.

When my parents arrived home from wherever they had been, they immediately made us thank Miss Leanne for watching and taking care of us. She was extremely grateful for the opportunity.

She babysat for my family another time and basketball was once again on television. We watched it, and Michael Jordan didn’t fail to disappoint. My parents returned, Miss Leanne left and my life continued as usual.

Until one day in February. My parents informed us that our babysitter was missing. She had been taken, kidnapped and her whereabouts were unknown at the time. I didn’t care about basketball or any sports on that day. I was worried. I had to know where Leanne had been taken.

Later it was revealed that Leanne had been kidnapped, raped and murdered, her body thrown in a ditch and abandoned. I was still young and did not understand much of what was going on at the time, but I was sad and terrified. My cool babysitter that loved sports was gone, but more importantly someone had lost a phenomenal friend and a terrific daughter.

As I grew older my love for basketball grew. My most vivid memories of basketball remain of the times Leanne sat on the couch with me and my siblings and watched the Bulls play. And as I grew older and my love for all sports merely increased, there was always a connection to basketball.

Never would I step foot on a court as a member of any organized team. I was always too small, or so I thought. Muggsy Bogues put those thoughts to shame, but by then I was well involved in soccer and baseball.

Still, my love for the game of basketball was constant. Jordan’s final shot as a member of the Bulls over Bryon Russell was something I will never forget watching on television.

The Spurs won the title the next season with David Robinson and Tim Duncan. I was hooked on the sport. I soaked in every piece of information that I could and watched every game that I was allowed to during those years.

And that youthful love for the game has never faded. My graceful feet have never done more than take up space on the hardwood floor. My tiny hands and bony arms have never been more than a fifth option during pick-up games.

That doesn’t matter. A love for the game of basketball that began in my youth and blossomed after an awful death will never leave me. All I want to do is thank Miss Leanne one last time.

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A year later

It’s been a year, but I still remember it like it was yesterday.

I remember casually eating a slice of leftover pizza as I watched the storms roll into the county. My mind was heavy with fear as I watched the meteorologist describe the scene. A tornado developed and fell to the ground, and as quick as it had dropped to the earth, my heart sank.

“Eventually it will be moving up U.S. Highway [369]. Well, it’s going up 11 right now,” meteorologist Mark Prater said during the coverage I was watching. That was my cue. My brother and I went to the bathroom.

I moved two chairs into the bathroom and clinched my brother’s hands. I uttered a few fear-driven words, and then began praying. I could hear it. It was like a bass drum that was continually being beaten and driven closer and closer to where I was sitting. And then it was upon us. The air left the bathroom, and all I could hear was the sound of a freight train over my head.

Windows crashed.

“Hopefully, that’s all it is. Maybe it’s just a stray branch that was picked up by the wind,” I thought to myself. The sounds of trees being ripped apart followed the sound of the glass shattering. That’s when I smelled reality.

Reality smelled like a pine tree. From within the bathroom, I could tell something wasn’t right, because the smell of fresh pine made its way into the air.

The howling winds continued. My ears popped, and just like that it was gone. I could hear it still, but it was evident that it was no longer overhead.

The two of us stayed in the bathroom for a few moments. We prayed, we wondered and we trembled. I tried to call my parents, but the cell signal was too low for any call to be completed. My brother contacted our grandparents from his cell phone. After that, we opened the door.

“Oh my goodness. Wow,” my brother said.

I glanced into the living room and saw our front door blown completely off of its hinges and into our living room. I moved to other areas of the apartment. Glass littered the kitchen floor, and dirt, leaves and branches were strung across the entire apartment.

“The entire second story is gone,” he said. I stepped closer to the opening to see if he was exaggerating. He wasn’t.

Total devastation. The second story of the apartment complex was almost completely gone. The only thing that remained above our apartment were floorboards.

A family down the way from our apartment was screaming. The lady needed an ambulance for her two grandchildren. I offered to take one of them, but she ran away frantically and handed them to a friend. He took them to the end of the street to find an ambulance. I don’t know what happened to them.

We walked around and asked those around us if they needed any help. Everyone seemed safe, no injuries or deaths. Except for a dog whose neck had been cut. A kind man used a bandana to stop the bleeding.

A woman ran frantically to the front of our apartment door and focused her eyes on the second story. Two boys broke the window to the apartment above us, and reported that there were no people inside, and virtually nothing was left.

“That’s my son. My baby. He lived there. That’s my baby,” she cried. I had no words of comfort to offer. I had no idea what to say.

I turned to my brother. We needed to contact more family. We contacted our parents. They were hundreds of miles away in a helpless disposition. Their calm nature helped ease my stress.

The stench of gas was strong. The tornado had destroyed the laundry facility, and it caused a terrible gas leak to occur. We were advised to stay away from that area.

My brother went inside to pack some clothes in a backpack. We needed our social security cards, our passports and a couple changes of clothing. For some reason I only grabbed three or four pairs of underwear. To be honest, I don’t know if I used any of them for the next few days.

I walked to the front of the complex. My goal was to find a place for shelter, or find out where to go to find a shelter. I spotted a fireman, and I ran quickly over to ask him where to go. He was speechless. He advised me to just go somewhere, anywhere. University Village, an apartment complex just up the street, was virtually untouched. After few seconds of thinking he told us to go there.

I turned around and looked to my right. The entire front line of apartments were decimated. Nothing but rubble remained. Without even thinking I ran over the rubble, or rather, I began to run. I saw my landlord.

I stopped to ask if she was fine. She said she was not hurt. As I turned to walk back to my apartment, I heard a cry. It was another tenant.

“I think she’s gone. They’re trying. Or they tried,” she said. She broke down in tears. My landlord consoled her.

I looked around and saw a few people huddled over someone, but at the time I didn’t think anything of it. Later, I realized that was likely one of the people from the complex that died.

I ran towards my complex. I stepped on a board, and a nail went straight through my shoe (which were mismatched, a basketball shoe and a dress shoe) and into my foot. I grimaced in pain, and sat down on a cleaner board. I pulled the nail through my foot, back through my shoe and out. I limped back to the apartment.

My brother had the backpacks and a few Gatorades. We were ready to set out. We walked through devastation. 27th Street was leveled, and as I glanced to my right and looked at Rosedale Courts, all I saw was chaos. Sirens were blaring, and people were screaming, crying and shuffling to find any sense of order.

We made it to shelter. By nothing other than God alone, we saw someone I knew during my first two years in Tuscaloosa. He invited us into his apartment. A friend of his washed my bloody foot.

The rest of the details aren’t very important. A kind soul stayed with me and my brother until any threat of a storm had passed. She drove us to campus so we could be with more people and among friends. A drive that usually took five minutes — from 10th Avenue to campus — took two hours.

Our valuables were largely spared. I saved a good bit of clothes. I saved my mom’s dishes. I salvaged my television. My car was not as fortunate. A roof landed on top of my PT Cruiser. But I was alive. That’s what mattered.

The kind-heartedness I encountered was immeasurable. I moved back to Tuscaloosa on May 6th, 2011. An apartment in Northport opened up, and the cost was comparable to the one we previously lived in. We anticipated not having any furniture, and were prepared to live the first few days or weeks with donated clothes, a few sleeping bags my parents brought down from Virginia and the comfort of being close to family.

When we arrived our apartment was fully furnished. I can’t thank the people of Trinity Presbyterian Church in Northport, Ala., enough for their generosity. It helped get me and my brother back on our feet.

Now, a year later and I’m going back today to revisit the grassy lot where my old apartment complex stood. I want to take some pictures. I’ll try not to get too emotional. It won’t be easy.

Then again, life is never easy. I often wonder why I was allowed to live, but Nicole Mixon (the girl who was being hovered over by so many people) died. I don’t have answers. I can only thank God for sparing me and giving me, well, another year on on this earth.

It’s been a year, and I thank God for every single one of those days.

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