Jon Reed

Journalist in Birmingham, Ala.

Tag: tornado

Harrisons, Tuscaloosa work on moving on after last year’s storm

by Jon Reed

When tornadoes ripped through Dallas, Texas, on April 3, Darlene Harrison and her husband David knew they needed to find shelter. Their home didn’t have a basement, so they raced with their dog through the wind, rain and hail to a neighbor’s house.

Darlene Harrison could only think of one thing as they bolted for safety: This is what Ashley must have gone through.

Ashley Harrison, their only daughter, was killed on April 27, 2011, when an EF4 tornado ripped through Tuscaloosa. Ashley had been at the apartment of her boyfriend, Crimson Tide football player Carson Tinker, when the tornado flattened the building. Both of them were thrown into a field. Tinker survived and was quickly taken to DCH Regional Medical Center.

An hour after the storm hit, Ashley Harrison’s body was found. A neighbor’s German shepherd ran into the field of debris. The dog, named Saban, jumped in and out of the rubble, looking for the 23-year-old who always played with him. He finally crawled into a pile of debris and stayed there, even as his owner called for him. When the neighbor finally found Saban, the German shepherd was curled up next to Ashley’s body. She lay unidentified in the morgue until early the next morning, after her parents had arrived from Dallas.

In the year since then, the Harrisons have stayed in close contact with Ashley’s friends and the parents of other students who were killed in the storm. Those relationships, as well as the support of friends and family, have helped the Harrisons cope with the hole the storm ripped in their hearts, Darlene Harrison said.

“That hole is so big that we say those people sit around the edge of the hole and keep us from falling in,” she said.

The Harrisons were not alone in their shock and grief. Ashley was one of 53 people killed when the storm ripped through Tuscaloosa. Six UA students, as well as two from Shelton State Community College and one from Stillman College, would never get a chance to graduate.

The storm leveled homes and businesses with no regard for race, class or creed. It cut a swath half a mile wide and six miles long through Tuscaloosa. Even a year later, there are few places along the tornado’s path where the land does not look much the way it did the morning of April 28. At 15th Street and McFarland Boulevard, the CVS Pharmacy that once served as a quick convenience store for students and residents still stands, albeit empty and boarded up. In Holt, homes are still crumbling, their owners waiting for the insurance money needed to rebuild.

For a month, Rosedale resident Michael Moore continued to sit on his porch, even though much of the housing project had long been swept away by the wind.

Residents of the Forest Lake neighborhood are still asking themselves whether or not to stay in the devastated community.

In Alberta, many stretches of land are still empty fields where apartment buildings and businesses once sprawled. The congregation of College Hill Baptist Church plans a rebuilding effort for their church on University Boulevard, where the only thing the storm spared was the sanctuary.

There are a few places amid the desolation where the first signs of Tuscaloosa’s future can be seen. A week ago, Krispy Kreme broke ground at its former site on McFarland Boulevard, hoping to turn the “Hot Now” sign on again by the fall. Of the 116 businesses destroyed in Tuscaloosa, only 20 have reopened or have permits to reopen in their same locations, according to the Chamber of Commerce of West Alabama. Another 44 businesses are planning to move elsewhere in the area or already have. Some, like Full Moon BBQ, will open their doors soon in other locations. Others, like Hobby Lobby, already have.

While the physical recovery of Tuscaloosa continues at a varied pace across the city, the people affected by the storm know they will never be the same.


‘Back to our roots’


Matt Calderone was just an intern at Tuscaloosa City Hall, but his day started at 5 a.m. on April 28. City Clerk Tracy Croom had called him into the office, handed him a computer and told him to go to St. Matthias Church on Skyland Boulevard. The church was packed with volunteers looking to help in the massive cleanup and recovery effort that could begin at first light. A man stood up on the church’s stage and asked where the guy from the mayor’s office was.

“I’m looking around thinking, ‘Where is that guy? He has to be here somewhere,’” Calderone said. “Then I realized I was that guy.”

Calderone’s task, which he wasn’t aware of when he left City Hall, was to organize volunteers and coordinate the six points of distribution for food, water and other essentials Mayor Walt Maddox had set up in the affected areas. Calderone, who was a UA sophomore at the time and had only recently started his internship, coordinated a crowd of volunteers that was so large there wasn’t enough work for all of them. For the next few days, Calderone would serve as the city’s lead official for coordinating the volunteer effort. He carried two phones and a walkie talkie, answering calls at every hour of the day and night.

“Everyone wanted to help and people didn’t know how,” he said. “I was in a position to help.”

When the winds died down, UA students were some of the first on the scene. Students banded together to form UA Greek Relief, which raised more than $200,000 and cooked thousands of meals in the days after the tornado for residents and volunteers. Though they often earn reputations as bad neighbors because they’re only temporary residents, students in the tornado’s path were at times the first on the scene to help their fellow residents. In the last year, the campus has played a key role in lifting the city to its feet, with students building homes through Habitat for Humanity and clearing debris through the SGA’s Sunday Service initiative.

Now the president of the UA Student Government Association, Calderone continues to see the way Tuscaloosa is coming together after the disaster. He has worked with everyone from Habitat for Humanity and other nonprofits to NBA star Dwight Howard in helping pick the city up piece by piece. Calderone said the most important thing, though, is not picking up. It’s how you rebuild.

“When something like that happens, you have to deal with the issue, but you have to look to the future,” he said.

Tuscaloosa Forward, which was originally presented to citizens in July, is the city’s proposed plan to rebuild the areas destroyed by the storm in a different and more modern way. The plan includes a pedestrian path with green space and village centers in each neighborhood affected by the storm. On May 15, City Council will vote to approve or reject the residential zoning part of the plan.

Calderone said the most important aspect of the city’s long-term recovery, though, is something he saw a lot of in the days after the storm – the city’s spirit when faced with adversity.

“It’s things like this that happen to a community that bring us back to our roots and remind us of what our purpose is,” he said.


‘Nothing to be taken lightly’


Before April 27, Bragan Jackson didn’t take the sirens seriously. Coming from south Alabama, Jackson was used to hurricanes and the four days’ warning they come with. In April, he only had about a minute of warning.

Jackson and his roommates were at their home in Cedar Crest when the storm came through. They weren’t watching the weather – Jackson was watching a movie, one roommate was playing video games and another was asleep. A friend sent one of his roommates a text message, saying the tornado was coming toward them. They switched on the news and saw it coming right for their neighborhood. All three of them threw on their shoes and got under a mattress.

When the storm hit, their house was not damaged as much as their neighbors’ homes. The storm broke their windows, the air pressure in the house dropped and the wind rushed through the building with the sound of a jet engine, he said, but the walls stayed and only limbs and branches – not whole trees – hit the roof. Once it was over, they got out from under the mattress and walked around Cedar Crest.

“We just walked around in disbelief,” he said. “You couldn’t walk down the street without walking over trees and power lines.”

Gas leaks and other safety hazards kept Jackson, who graduated from the University in December, from staying in his house after the storm, so he stayed at a friend’s house in Northport. When he returned to Cedar Crest a few days later, he said at least 30 of his friends were standing in his front yard, helping clean up.

“That was one thing that changed immediately,” he said. “It brought us all together.”

Though Jackson is in Mobile now and seldom has to deal with a tornado warning, he said he learned one important lesson that day. He’ll never again think a tornado isn’t a big deal.

“Before this, I’d always joked that tornadoes didn’t exist,” he said. “They’re certainly nothing to be taken lightly anymore.”

A year later, the University, the city of Tuscaloosa and students are constantly working to make sure a tornado is never taken lightly. The University implemented a new storm warning system this year that includes calling students in the event of an emergency. Every Wednesday at noon, students receive a test call. On Thursday, April 19, students saw the system in practice for something completely unrelated – when shots were fired on the Strip.

Students have also shown an increased interest in keeping an eye on the weather. When tornadoes moved through West Alabama the night of Jan. 22, many students still had their TVs and computers tuned to James Spann’s live broadcast of storm coverage, discussing their anxiety, sleeplessness and memories on Twitter and Facebook.

They knew what it was like to be caught unprepared and they didn’t want it to happen again.


‘We live through her legacy’


In Dallas, Darlene Harrison doesn’t need to be reminded about the importance of storm protection. As a realtor, she knows about houses and what it takes to be safe from a tornado. She knows it was an unsafe building that led to Ashley’s death.

“The house is what killed her,” she said. “All the houses around her were still standing but that house.”

Part of her fight to keep Ashley’s legacy alive is to make sure her clients know just how safe they need to be.

“You realize that you help out other people and help them know where they’re safest,” she said.

She said she and her husband also stay in close touch with Ashley’s friends, including keeping tabs on the weather in Tuscaloosa in case another dangerous storm approaches. The Harrisons both have apps on their phones and get warnings when bad weather comes near Dallas or Tuscaloosa. They didn’t have those apps in April, when Ashley called each time there was a tornado warning and her father would talk her through the weather conditions.

“I wish we could have a do-over, because we’re so much more prepared now,” Darlene Harrison said.

In the last year, the Harrisons have created scholarships and funds in Ashley’s name as a way to help others and find some good in the bad. They even created a memorial pet fund in honor of Ashley’s dog and Tinker’s dog, who were both killed in the storm. The fund recently helped a former Marine and his wife in Dallas whose dog was hit by a car.

Giving back is how the Harrisons cope with the loss they suffered a year ago, how they fill the void left when the tornado took their only daughter.

“You don’t think you’ll outlive your children,” Darlene Harrison said. “Now, we live through her legacy.”


This article first appeared in the April 27, 2012, edition of The Crimson White. You can see it here.

Tuscaloosa rebuilds after tornado

by Jon Reed

Shortly after 5 p.m. Wednesday, April 27, the face of Tuscaloosa was dramatically changed. An EF-4 tornado, with winds upwards of 190 mph, cut a gash six miles long and half a mile wide through the middle of the city, stretching from the Rosedale housing project near I-359 through the neighborhoods of Alberta and Holt.

As of Tuesday morning, city officials confirmed that 40 people in the Tuscaloosa area were killed, though some officials expect that number to rise as more areas are searched. The storm system also hit Birmingham, Huntsville, Cullman and other communities in Alabama, as well as Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee and Mississippi.

The tornado demolished homes and businesses from Rosedale through Forest Lake, 15th Street, Alberta and Holt before continuing for another 80 miles and hitting Birmingham.

As residents pick up the pieces, the city looks ahead to a recovery that will take months and years, not days.

‘Beyond a nightmare’

UA senior James Fowler, former president of the Student Government Assosication was at the Delta Kappa Epsilon house on University Boulevard when the tornado hit. Fowler watched as the tornado formed on the other side of Bryant-Denny Stadium, and then saw the destruction afterward on 15th Street.

“You can see clear from the Wendy’s on 15th to Midtown Village,” he said Wednesday night. “There’s nothing there. The trees and the buildings are all gone.”

On 15th Street and McFarland Boulevard, the tornado leveled restaurants and businesses familiar to UA students. That night, word spread quickly that Milo’s Hamburgers, Full Moon Bar-B-Que and other locations were completely demolished. Students walked from their homes and apartments to see the area with their own eyes.

Thursday morning, the daylight revealed just how widespread the destruction was. Tuscaloosa Mayor Walt Maddox surveyed the damage from a helicopter.

“This is going to be a very long process,” he said Thursday. “The amount of damage done is beyond a nightmare.”

Maddox estimated Thursday that the damage would total in the tens of millions of dollars, but by Monday, as the destruction across the city became even more clear, the estimate for just debris removal became more than $100 million.

Across the city, though, the cost of the storm is not only measured in dollars. It’s measured in lives.

Six students from the University of Alabama, two students from Shelton State Community College and one student from Stillman College have been confirmed as being killed in the storm. As of Tuesday, the city confirmed that 40 people were killed. Even six days after the tornado hit, though, that number is not final.

Search and rescue teams from as far away as Louisiana have continued to comb the debris, and the area of destruction is so vast that it will take a long time before every impacted area is searched, officials said.

Teams with cadaver dogs began searching the Holt area Sunday, and many areas of the city and county remain unchecked by search and rescue teams.

“A lot of folks don’t realize how long this tornado was,” Tuscaloosa County Probate Judge W. Hardy McCollum said Tuesday. “We have about another 15 to 20 miles beyond Eagle Cove Marina that has yet to be searched.”

Although that area is sparsely populated, McCollum said debris from Tuscaloosa could have been carried into the area.

Maddox said that once the search and rescue phase has ended, likely on Saturday or Sunday, then debris removal and recovery can begin.

‘This is not a sprint, it’s a marathon’

As soon as the storm hit, the people of Tuscaloosa began mobilizing to help those in need.

The University of Alabama opened up the Student Recreation Center to refugees, the city turned the Belk Activity Center into a shelter and many local churches and organizations mobilized to provide food and safety for those who were displaced by the storm.

Druid City Hospital Regional Medical Center treated more than 800 victims Wednesday night.

After the storm, volunteers began to line the streets of the affected areas, providing victims with food and water as they searched the debris of their homes.

In Alberta, the Federal Emergency Management Agency set up a command center at Leland Shopping Center on University Boulevard, where volunteers also coordinated their efforts to help residents. In Holt, FEMA set up at Holt Elementary School.

The Mid-Alabama region of the American Red Cross used its resources to coordinate more than 1,000 volunteers across the state, serving more than 49,000 meals on Tuesday alone.

“This is not a sprint,” said Chris Osborne, director of marketing and public relations for the Mid-Alabama region. “It’s a marathon.”

Osborne said the Red Cross is currently working to identify the needs of individual families. Although right now the primary concern of most victims is food and water, different needs will arise in the future, and the Red Cross is working to coordinate those for the families that need them.

“We work with all of our partners, like FEMA, to make sure we’re helping get people on the road to recovery,” Osborne said.

UA students have played a major role in providing aid to victims. Monday, the UA greek system provided more than 11,000 meals to victims and volunteers. The DKE house served as a major launching point for sending aid throughout the city.

Students have provided aid in any way possible, some even going to their homes throughout the country and returning with food and supplies.

“One of the remarkable stories that has come out of this event has been the generosity of our students,” Maddox said. “We see hundreds, if not thousands, of students out volunteering on a daily basis. Students are giving back to Tuscaloosa in an unprecedented way and I guess it’s easy to understand why. This is your city and you become attached to it.”

‘A new day will dawn’

Maddox and other local officials know the city is hurting, but they also believe it can rise up from the destruction and be rebuilt.

“Recovery is going in to places that have already been removed from the map and beginning a new day,” Maddox said.

In Holt, the destruction of Brown Greenhouses did not mean the end of the business.

“Our customers told us not to quit,” said Margaret Brown, the owner of Brown Greenhouses.

Judge McCollum is optimistic about the area’s recovery.

“We will come back from this,” he said Thursday, “and we will come back even stronger.”

A year from now, Maddox said he believes Tuscaloosa will still be reeling from the desolation, but that the storm will not break the spirit of the city.

“A year from now, we will begin to see neighborhoods come to life,” he said. “What I hope to see is that this spirit of unity, this spirit of compassion and resiliency will carry us through and make a new life here in Tuscaloosa.

“We’re still here, we’re still fighting and we refuse to be defined by what happened on that terrible night. We decide for ourselves that what people will really remember us by is the fact that we got back on our feet. We refuse to quit, and we’re going to make this city a shining city on a hill.”

This article first appeared in the May 5, 2011, special edition of The Crimson White.

Video: Forest Lake, Tuscaloosa, May 4

by Jon Reed


This video, shot for The Crimson White after the April 27, 2011, tornado, shows the cleanup effort in the Forest Lake community of Tuscaloosa. It was part of a package that earned 7th place in the news category of the Hearst Journalism Awards competition, along with “Tuscaloosa rebuilds after tornado.”

Holt ‘a little bit forgotten’

by Jon Reed

Wednesday night, Margaret Brown saw her house fall around her and her business destroyed.

Sunday, she vowed to pick up the pieces.

Brown, who owns Brown Greenhouses on Crescent Ridge Road in Holt, was at her home on Cherrywood Circle when the tornado hit. She and her daughter, Ann Marie, sought shelter in the bathroom, but it was a friend of her daughter who ultimately saved their lives, she said.

Michael Bujalski went to work at Kozy’s restaurant at 3 p.m. Wednesday, but Kozy’s sent him home when they had no power. Instead of going to his home, which was not in the tornado’s path, Bujalski went to check on the Browns.

“I don’t think I would be here without Michael,” Margaret Brown said. “I think God put Michael there.”

Bujalski held Margaret and Ann Marie Brown to the floor of the bathroom as the tornado picked up the house three times and stripped away the walls.

“If he hadn’t been there,” Ann Marie Brown said, “We would’ve gone up in the air.”

When it was over, all three escaped uninjured.

“God and Michael were with us,” Margaret Brown said. “God held us all together.”

Sunday afternoon, volunteers swarmed Brown Greenhouses to help the family think about starting over again. People from as far away as Florida helped salvage what plants remained in the Browns’ 16 greenhouses, while others used the parking lot of the business to prepare food for residents and volunteers.

The family’s business has served Holt for about 24 years.

“Our customers don’t want us to quit, so I guess we’re not quitting,” Margaret Brown said.

While the Browns are thinking about rebuilding, others in Holt are still surveying the damage. The Federal Emergency Management Agency set up a command center at Holt Elementary School, and police with cadaver dogs began scouring what remains of neighborhoods.

People lined Crescent Ridge Road handing out food and water to volunteers, residents and anyone who passed by. But all of the food and water coming into the area does not fill every need of residents, one volunteer said.

“Yesterday, when we were in Alberta, it was mostly workers needing food,” said Kelly Greene, a volunteer from Tuscaloosa. “Here, it’s families needing everything.”

Greene said residents often need small items most volunteers don’t bring. One resident needed diapers and formula for a newborn. Another, a diabetic, needed something sweet, and a volunteer supplied lollipops.

The Holt area is still in need of everything, Greene said.

“It’s completely different here than what we found yesterday in Alberta,” she said. “This place seems to be a little bit forgotten.”

Power companies from Georgia and South Carolina put new electrical poles up along Crescent Ridge Road, but rebuilding Holt will take far more than that, Greene said.

“They’ve got the poles up, but there’s nothing to hook it to,” she said. “Holt Elementary and the water tower are still standing, but there’s nothing else.”

Rafeal Nevels returned to his home Sunday to salvage his car. The wall around the back of his house was missing, but a bookshelf and other pieces of furniture still stood in the house, fully visible from the road.

Nevels said he had spent much of his time out helping others, and that his own possessions had fallen victim because of it. Looters had taken his flat screen television and his computer monitor.

“I know it’s gone, but it’ll get replaced,” he said. “I’m not pitching a fit about it; I just thank God my life is here.”

Residents said looters were using back roads to get around police after curfew, since residents were not allowed in the area either after 8 p.m.

Nevels’ mother-in-law, Shirley Billingsley, said despite all of the problems and the looting, she has seen the best of the city rise up in wake of the crisis.

“It’s rough out here,” she said, “but you know what? First time in my life I ever saw Tuscaloosa – black, white, Puerto Rican, Mexican – working together. Hallelujah, God is good.”


This article first appeared on The Crimson White’s website on May 1, 2011.

Video: Alberta Neighborhood, Tuscaloosa, April 30

by Jon Reed


This video was shot for The Crimson White in the Alberta neighborhood of Tuscaloosa after the April 27 tornado.