Eighteen months after devastating tornado, Tuscaloosa survives and thrives

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. – Today, the corner of 15th Street and McFarland looks like any other busy intersection just off any other highway in the South. Gas stations, hotels with permanent "Roll Tide" cheers on their marquees, fast-food joints – they're all here, right as they should be.

But if you look closer, you can see gaps and fields where you wouldn't expect gaps and fields to be. The trees along Forest Lake are stripped bare of all but the very thickest branches. A chain-link fence surrounds the remains of an old building – its exposed wiring and insulation like a still-open wound. On a now-shuttered salon, a spray-painted X, denoting search-and-rescue efforts, reminds you of a disaster still very much present in this town the University of Alabama calls home.

"I met someone last month on campus and was explaining how to get somewhere," said Kristen Bolden, a student at Alabama. "I said, 'Oh, you turn where Hobby Lobby used to be.' He had no idea what I was talking about. I remember just looking at him like he had to be joking.

"He hadn't seen piles of rubble where Hobby Lobby was [or] a 35th Street with the National Guard helping people find some normalcy, or piles of debris where there used to be apartments. It made me a little upset that [he and others new to Tuscaloosa] don't have to have the same knee-jerk scared reaction to tornado sirens like myself and several friends do. I don't wish that on anyone ever at all, but I remember what it was like to not worry about every storm that rolls through."

The stadium looks like a toy.

That's the first thing you think when you see the video of the tornado that ripped through Tuscaloosa, Ala., in April 2011. Bryant-Denny Stadium is a 102,000-seat monolith that looms over both the University of Alabama and the city itself. And it looks like nothing more than a scale model in the foreground as the tornado tears a scar through the heart of the city in the background.

In other words: There's only one force more powerful in Alabama than Crimson Tide football.

"When you live in the South, you're used to hearing these kinds of weather warnings all the time," said Bolden, who lives just a few blocks from where the tornado tore through town. "It never hits where you are."

Bolden spent a fair part of the afternoon of April 27, 2011, checking her phone. Not unusual for any student, certainly, but in this case Bolden and others were keeping an eye on a storm system that was sweeping through Mississippi and Alabama and headed their way. Around 5 p.m., sirens began sounding across campus, and as the power went out and the true strength of the storm became apparent, students sought safety in ever-deeper recesses of academic buildings.

Tuscaloosa sat directly in the path of the largest of a 358-tornado storm that lasted four days – from April 25-28. The largest collection of tornadoes in American history, they devastated western Alabama from Tuscaloosa to Birmingham. A meteorologist captured video of the tornado as it headed toward Tuscaloosa, and thanks to that video, awareness of the true scope of the storm probably saved dozens if not hundreds of lives.

[Pat Forde: Alabama coach Nick Saban is, indeed, a curmudgeon]

The EF-4 level tornado, with winds that reached nearly 200 mph, carved its way northwest across Tuscaloosa, devastating neighborhoods before angling along 15th Street. There, dozens of fast-food restaurants and strip malls sat close together in classic American style, and there, the tornado vaporized many of those stores.

Patrons at the Full Moon Barbecue huddled in the restaurant's cooler to weather the tornado. When they stepped out into the light, they beheld absolutely unimaginable devastation. Stores and homes across the city were flattened, reduced to so much scrap wood and cinder blocks. Trees, their roots in rain-softened soil, were uprooted and thrown into homes. Cars were flipped upside down alongside highways. Hundreds of thousands were without power. Tuscaloosa sustained more than $1 billion in property damage, half of the storm's total toll on Alabama. Fifty-three people died in the tornado itself, and another 1,200 suffered injury.

Bad as it was, it could have been even worse. The tornado came within a hundred yards of the DCH Medical Center, which sits on a small hill overlooking 15th and McFarlane. Just across the street from the hospital, the tornado leveled an entire strip mall. It's tough to imagine what would have happened had the tornado hit the hospital, nearby Central High School, or any of the buildings on the Alabama campus where thousands of students and faculty huddled in the sudden darkness.

You can't schedule these things, but even so, the city of Tuscaloosa fell victim to remarkably bad timing. Less than 48 hours after the disaster hit, the royal wedding of Prince William and Catherine Middleton captured the public's imagination. And less than a month after Tuscaloosa, a mile-wide EF5 tornado virtually wiped Joplin, Mo., off the map. That disaster surpassed Tuscaloosa as the costliest tornado in American history, and drew national attention after Brad Pitt donated $500,000 to his home state for relief.

Still, Tuscaloosa pushed onward. Independent charitable efforts, often bedecked with the classic hound's-tooth design of Alabama legend Bear Bryant, sprang up all over the state. A university "Greek Relief" effort raised more than $150,000 in donations and provided 52,000 meals to victims and first responders.

"What was really remarkable was how quickly people would respond to Twitter," Ashley Getwan, a student and the Greek Relief communications coordinator, told Alabama's university website. "If I tweeted, 'Hey, we need bread for sandwiches,' within an hour we probably had 200 loaves. It was so quick and so immediate."

Twitter helped the Tuscaloosa News win a Pulitzer Prize for breaking news. Reporters across the city offered on-the-scene assessments so accurate that the National Guard prioritized its rescue efforts based on the tweets. "I'm watching firemen try to dig a girl out of the rubble of my apartments right now," tweeted Tuscaloosa News education reporter Jamon Smith.

"It was a poignant 24 hours [after the storm]," Tuscaloosa mayor Walt Maddox said. "I remember standing about 50 yards from a debris field where someone said they'd found a deceased child. I'm like everyone else, running to the debris. Black, white, young, old, Republican, Democrat – we were all running to be with this child. The things that separated us before didn't separate us now. That was the first time I had the sense that we could do this. We were not going to let each other down."

[Related: Steve Spurrier compares Crimson Tide to an NFL team]

Crimson Tide football, around which the entire region and much of the state rallies, stepped up as well. Head coach Nick Saban was a frequent presence at relief efforts and funding drives, and he encouraged his team to get out in the community and help get the city back on its feet.

"I met a man with only one leg who had worked three years to get a truck that would allow him to drive. And now it's gone," Saban told CBSSports.com. "Once you see it and understand what one of these storms can do, it changes you forever."

The tragedy touched the Tide directly: Ashley Harrison, the girlfriend of long snapper Carson Tinker, died when the two were ripped from their house. Tinker, who suffered a broken wrist, stepped up and served as an inspiration in the wake of the storm, and Saban awarded him a full scholarship for the 2012-13 season.

And, in some small way, the Tide would go on to fire up the entire city in their own way. They lost a 9-6 overtime game to LSU in November, but would come back to win the national championship against those same Tigers in January of this year.

"People who aren't from Tuscaloosa can't quite understand the effect that Alabama football has on us," Maddox said. "It was such an important psychological lift. It mirrored what we went through, the loss to LSU. When you're knocked down, you don't have to stay down."

Eighteen months later, more than 80 percent of the storm-damaged homes and businesses are either rebuilt or under repair. And indeed, Tuscaloosa is getting back to what passes for normal in a college town. Students are back to studying or dodging their studies. Homes and stores proudly wave the crimson A. And, of course, the University of Alabama is still the No. 1 team in the nation, and the city shuts down every fall weekend in salute.

"For us, April 27 is like B.C. and A.D.," said Maddox. "The tornado cast a shadow over everything we do." But in his defiant and inspiring cadence, he goes on. "This is a story not just of tragedy, but of resiliency. The tightness, the closeness, the unity of spirit since the tornado embodies everything good about Tuscaloosa."

This past Saturday night – or, more properly, 1 a.m. Sunday morning – the Alabama faithful, reveling in a thorough walloping of Mississippi State, continued to crowd into the newly-rebuilt Krispy Kreme at the corner of McFarland and 15th. They inhaled Original Glazed donuts and Roll-Tide'd in the exact spot the tornado had devastated just 18 months before.

"When the Full Moon Barbecue came back, that got people going," said Bolden. "When Hokkaido [a popular local Japanese restaurant] came back, that got people going. When Krispy Kreme came back … Jesus, did that get people going."

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