My good friend Jeff got married in New Orleans last Friday. I was invited to the wedding and I decided to drive to Tuscaloosa, Alabama last Wednesday afternoon. My buddy Jeremy lives there and I was to stay the night with him and then we'd both get up early and head to the Big Easy on Thursday morning. Things didn't go quite as planned...
Around 4 PM central time on Wednesday I'm passing through Nashville, Tennessee. Jeremy sends me a text message that says, "major tornadoes and thunderstorms in northern Alabama in an hour or so." Me, being stubborn and slightly ignorant to the power of southern storms, decided to ignore his warning and continue south towards the Alabama border. Before I reached the border the skies turned dark and it started to pour. I turned on local radio to see if there were any tornado warnings. There were.
I found a local sports radio show that turned into a weather forecast. Two fellows who knew nothing about meteorology were reporting on the twisters. It was one after another, tornado after tornado was popping up EVERYWHERE. Here's the problem, however... they were saying the names of the towns the tornadoes were near and I didn't know Herky Jerk, Alabama from Stinkyville.
Before I knew it I could hear tornado warning sirens. The wind was blowing my car all over the road. I was driving 25 miles an hour on the interstate. All of a sudden the pressure in the car changed and my ears started hurting. It only lasted a second, but I knew from a tornado experience early in my childhood that was the sign of a nearby twister.
An emergency broadcast system warning interrupted the goofy weather men and said something similar to this... "There is a tornado in the area. Take cover. Take cover now."
I thought to myself, "Ok, this is enough." I immediately exited the interstate and headed for the first brick building I could find. It was an Applebees. I parked the car as fast as I could and ran to the door. It was locked!!! I ran back to the car, but as I started to get in, an older fellow ran to the door and let me inside. I chatted with him for a moment, but I think I was talking gibberish. I remember shaking, stuttering and not being able to pay attention to his questions.
I sat down at the bar to gather myself. The bartender came up to me and asked if I'd like something to drink. I said, "Yes. Beer." At that point the power went out. So, I sat in the dark and talked to the people sitting near me. To my right was a lady from Atlanta. She was also driving through on Interstate 65. She arrived 5 minutes before me. She took this picture as she walked in...
I'd missed the 3/4 mile wide twister by five minutes. Insane, right? Well, she also informed me that another one was predicted to pass in 10 minutes. I wasn't going anywhere for awhile.
Oddly, three national moving guys from Huntington, WV were to my left. I sat and talked to them about WVU and Marshall football for almost 45 minutes. And thankfully, the once predicted second twister passed well south of where we were.
I decided to hit the road again. As I entered the interstate, this was the first thing I saw...
This was the start of an amazing 4 hour drive. Trees were everywhere. They were snapped in half and thrown around like toothpicks. I continually smelled the sent of pine. I counted six tornado paths between where I pulled off and Birmingham, Alabama. Traffic was stopped numerous times and random people were pulling the trees off the road. Emergency workers were nowhere to be found. I'm guessing they were too busy.
I made it to Birmingham which was only 30 miles or so from Tuscaloosa. I had to get gas, but all the stations were closed! I thought I was going to have to spend the night there until a gas station opened. I was wrong, however and I found a crowded station and got a fill up.
Tuscaloosa was a mess from a Tornado that went right through its downtown. I was warned not to drive near there, but my GPS didn't know any other way to Jeremy's house. It was dark when I arrived, so I couldn't see much. I do recall seeing a section of I359 with debris strung everywhere. It smelled like burning metal and there were flashing lights all around. I didn't see a much, but I knew it was bad.
I finally arrived at Jeremy's in northern Tuscaloosa around 11 PM and we watched the end of a very dramatic Penguins game 7 against the Tampa Lightning. We're both huge fans, but neither of us cared that we lost. Sports was insignificant that evening. We went to bed, got up early and headed to what I call Tuscaloosa Ground Zero. Here are some pictures...
This intersection was where we entered the site.
Right before I snapped this picture I heard a group of people scream and then cheer. I turned around and there was this fellow with his dog. He pulled him out from the rubble. He was there all night long and he wasn't hurt! Unfortunately he said he had another dog that he couldn't find. :(
Right after I took this picture a lady pulled up beside me in a car. She had a sign on the top of her car that said, "Steak Out." She was a delivery driver for a restaurant in this flattened plaza. She looks at Jeremy and I and said, "Welp, guess I'm not going to work today!" and drove off.
We gathered our thoughts, jumped in the car and headed to New Orleans.
Friday morning we read that emergency crews pulled a man out of some rubble only a few feet from where we took some of these pictures. He was alive.