I have always talked about wanting to see a tornado. It has been a life long dream of mine, and I have gotten excited every time there is a chance of a tornado down here in Alabama. I have grown to love the massive storms which blow through the south, but on April 27 2011 I was introduced to the power a tornado has. This is my experience from that day.
Around 5 a.m. I woke up to Tornado sirens. I looked out the window, didn’t see any wind, or rain, but I thought to be safe and check the radio. They were playing music and didn’t have any word of warning or anything like that so I went back to sleep (much to the dismay of my mother when she found out.) Only 6 miles away a tornado touched down, but I didn’t find out about it until noon. Because of the approaching storms I was let out of work early and knew it was time to take some photographs.
I ran home and grabbed my camera. At last this was my chance to photograph the damage of a tornado, at last it was my chance to photograph something I have never seen in person before, and last of all I realized none of that mattered. I cannot describe the mixed emotions which went through me as I raced to Cahaba Heights to see what damage had been done. I pulled down a tree covered street and turned right into a scene of depression. I didn’t feel it at that time, all I wanted to do was take amazing photographs and build my portfolio with the traumatic photographs of a disaster.
I walked down the street deftly stepping over broken limbs, downed power lines, and around broken branches with a huge smile on my face. With my camera up and shooting at everything I was living my dream to capture everything. I was excited about the whole experience until I saw someone.
He was standing in front of his house a cell phone pressed to his left ear. He was a heavy-set man, with large arms and a bigger gut. His salt and pepper hair gave him a dignified look. He wore a sweat soaked orange t-shirt, brown khaki shorts, and white tennis shoes which looked like they had been walking in mud all day. Standing at the front of his lawn he ran his large right hand through his medium-length hair as he looked disparagingly at his home. In front a large tree was uprooted, laying on its side, on top was another tree crushing through his roof while more trees and branches covered his lawn and driveway. I stopped in my tracks and realized something. This man had just suffered serious damage to his home and property. And there he stood looking numb as he started at his carefully planned life. A life which had been crushed in moments.
My excitement dimmed into a dull sense of blandness. No longer did I have passion for the photographs, but neither did I want to leave. I began to take my photographs in a silenced stupor, still excited at the chance to document something like this, but numbed by the reality of what I was walking through. I was walking through the hopes and dreams of a whole community. I was walking through the memory of a retired couple. I was walking through the remnants of trees scattered with children’s toys. I was another witness to a tragedy.
As I continued on with my camera strapped to my wrist I came to a home covered in trees and broken branches strewn all over the driveway and yard. As I wandered next to this house a couple was walking down the street surveying the damage just like me and we engaged in a small conversation. Come to find out they had actually lived in Wyoming for a few years and they remembered what the wind was like up there, but we both agreed it never caused damage like this. As we were speaking a disheveled looking man passed by with a rake in his hand and looking at me with exhaustion and frustration said, “I’m about sick of seeing cameras.” I took the hint and left his area.
As I moved on to the next street the destruction just got worse and worse. I felt guilty even being there, so much so I asked if I could help at a few places, but they said, “Thank you, no. We have been doing this since 6 this morning (it was about 5 p.m.) and we are done for the day.” I wanted to document the situation so I kept my camera strapped to my wrist and shot a few pictures from the hip as I walked past tree removal crews. The road I was walking on was covered in broken trees, downed power lines, and debris from the tornado. I walked by one house with a mailbox with lights wrapped around the pole and for an instant the light bulbs were on, but as I stooped to get the picture they winked out. Looking back now I realize how dangerous a position I was in. Surrounding me in both the air and ground were power-lines. I had been walking around them, stepping over them, and ducking under them for the past hour I had been out there.
I cannot adequately describe how crazy the scene was, and honestly it was hard for me to distinguish my feelings in the situation. I was filled with the excitement of my very first tornado and the opportunity to document it, yet I felt guilty for my excitement as I viewed the destruction and devastation on everyone faces. I saw crushed cars, houses, broke fences, and shattered windows. I spoke to people who had the wind rip open their attic, blowing insulation into their house. Others only lost trees. All had lost power.
I spoke to one lady about her experience with the tornado and she related her experience to me. “I woke up at 5 am to get ready for the day before I headed to work. As part of my ritual I turned on the TV for some news and was about to hop in the shower when I heard the sirens (Tornado Sirens,) and they were talking about a possible tornado touching down in my neighborhood soon. I didn’t take a shower, but I sure ended up in the bathtub! About 5:10 the tornado hit our area. I was in my bathtub covered in pillows and cloths, and about 5:20 it was all over. I went out and discovered extensive damage to my house and a tree on my car. I have been out here ever since. My house has water and pluming, but no electricity. It is open to anybody who needs it.” Even now in my apartment full of electricity, running water, and a car outside it is hard to realize this happened only 6 miles from my apartment.
Near the end of my excursion I was almost back to my car when I saw a lady and her two daughters out surveying their house. They had little damage, but had lost several of their favorite trees. I feel I should explain a little. Alabama is covered in trees. Spring has been in effect for a while and every tree is covered in green leaves. There are so many trees you can rarely see the sky without looking through some trees. After this tornado there were several locations where you would see the sky without anything blocking your view. This lady was in good spirits, and very grateful she had only lost her trees and power. Her family was fine and her daughter was playing on the downed tree. I asked if I could get a picture of her playing on the tree and after taking a few shots of the daughter the mom told me to get down in the hole where the tree used to be and get a picture in there. I did, but I didn’t know if I should smile or frown… the result is an awkward look on my face.
As I drove out of the destruction zone I stopped by my friend’s house to see how they had survived the storm. They were not home but their house looked fine which is amazing because they live only 2 blocks away from the area of destruction. Throughout my excursion I had been hearing the worst was yet to come, more tornadoes will hit, and everyone should be looking for a safe place. I couldn’t really imagine much worse, but I was soon to be blown away by the destruction to come. I passed through abandoned streets and empty parking lots at shopping malls as I headed out. Traffic lights were out so there was mass confusion on how to handle the lights yet everyone was very courteous and patient. It was as though we had a bond with each other, all part of the same disaster and all part of the recovery. The streets were eerily empty, and the air held a suspense as though awaiting further devastation. It was quiet in the city and overcast and windy in the sky. The only sound for me was the sound of the radio announcer talking about a storm brewing in Tuscaloosa. This tornado was huge and the announcers were describing the scene as I was out driving.
I was heading to the Norris house when they called me and asked me where I was and if I had any place safe to get to. I told them I was coming to see them, initially to show them my pictures, but when they (the Alabama natives) said then were all going down to the basement because of the incoming tornado I instantly jumped in with them. There were several families who were down in the basement with us. I am very blessed to have people who are worried about me and wanted to check in on me. When I got there it wasn’t a minute before another friend called and told me to get somewhere safe. It was amazing she was able to call me because by that point getting a call through was extremely difficult, and getting a text message to send was about impossible. The air waves were being blown up by everyone checking in on their family, and it remained that way the whole night.
I quickly discovered everyone in Alabama knew how to read weather patterns on the radar, and the weather announcers were local idols. I admire their work and am grateful for what they do. They stay on air to inform and provide a window to everyone who cannot see what they see, and they don’t quit until the storms are past. They express concerns and fears through tears, and plea with people to get to safety. They have family in danger and at moments have to step off set to compose themselves when something personally devastating happens. I am thankful for their dedicated work and wonderful information. We ended up staying in the basement for a while, but the tornado missed us.
The same tornado which destroyed Tuscaloosa came and hit northern Birmingham about 8 miles north of my house with some serious damage. I went to my car to head home and found a piece of insulation on the top of it. I wondered if it had come from Tuscaloosa because people were finding items from Tuscaloosa as far as 90 miles away. I have no way to really explain damage caused by these tornadoes. There have not been tornadoes this bad since 1974, and all across the south there were a reported 150-300 tornadoes on April 27 2011. The death toll is still growing. I was so blessed to have nothing happen to me, or anybody I know. It was a relief both me and my family when I was able to contact them and let them know I was perfectly fine. A relief to them because they didn’t have to worry, and to me because I knew they wouldn’t worry, well I think my mother always worries, but as she has told me over and over again that, “Worrying is part of being a mother. I will always worry about my children. That will never change.” Thank you mom for your worry and your love.
One of the best articles describing the experience here in Birmingham was written by Kyle Whitmire please read it to understand what this tornado was like for a state which is used to tornadoes.