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.
“Eventually it will be moving up U.S. Highway . 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.
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 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.