Eleven years ago, things would have been different. As a graduate student at the University of Alabama in April 2000, my apartment then was in the path of the devastating and deadly tornados that swept through the college town and across the state on April 27, 2011. That seems like a lifetime ago, but all I can think is how I was spared, even if it was by more than a decade.
Had it happened that April or any other, Tuscaloosa would still draw maybe its greatest strength from the city’s heartbeat: Crimson Tide athletics. Sports Illustrated’s May, 23, 2011 cover story, “What the Tornado Took,” explores the inspiration and escape these athletes offer the community and how it’s needed, maybe now more than ever.
Many of these student-athletes suffered their own terror and heartbreak. One football player lost his girlfriend as the force of the storm ripped them apart. A gymnast held on for dear life in a door frame when no one was home in the apartment she frantically sought shelter in. The baseball team rallied around teammates whose homes were damaged, then offered to help a victim’s family salvage what they could from a neighboring house crushed by fallen trees, including the dress they wanted to bury their daughter in.
Many more are pitching in to help the community any way they can. Either way, it’s nothing like the late-game heroics or championship victories we’re used to reading about Alabama in the pages of a sports magazine. Then again, this was a tornado that delivered destruction like we’ve never seen–and a recovery effort perhaps like we’ve never known.
Time magazine’s May 20, 1996 cover story asked the typical questions the experts ask somewhere between the rubble and rebuilding in the aftermath of a natural disaster, this one focusing on another outbreak of tornados. How can warning systems be improved? How can loss of life and property be minimized? How can science help us understand?
Surely, those questions will be asked again, but 15 years later, these are the near constant ones on social media sites: How can I help? What do you need? Where can I serve? They have nothing to do with science or meteorology. In their simplest form, it is the compassion of the human spirit at its best aided only by the technology behind Facebook and Twitter, which might make it seem more advanced.
As Tuscaloosa and other towns along the swath of destruction look to rebuild, they have a unique opportunity–at least from the perspective of an article in Reader’s Digest magazine’s May 2011 issue. “The Greening of Greensburg” tells how one Kansas farm town rebuilt as green as possible after being destroyed by a tornado on May 4, 2007. Today, the town of maybe a couple thousand boasts more energy-efficient buildings per capita than any other in the nation.
In just the few weeks after the tornado churned across Alabama, getting back to normal seems like a far-away place. But along the way, Tuscaloosa will look to a group of college kids–now survivors who’ve learned lessons in such a way that no one should in a perfect world–to help lead them through the storm after the storm, whether it’s a boost from a win or distributing supplies.
Rebuilding, as it always does, will happen. Days and weeks will find a familiar routine. And in 11 years, things will once again be different–not because of the simple passing of time but because of everyone–athlete or not–who has and will make a difference in just getting there.