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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