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.