Rosedale 'mayor' has kept watchful eye on residents scattered across townBy Katherine Martin | 04/26/2012 11:11pm
Doug Wedgeworth is no stranger at the Tuscaloosa Housing Authority. He walks through the double doors, tips his blue cap to the receptionist who greets him by name and hands him a visitors’ pass, then, without having to ask permission, confidently strides into the first floor meeting room.
On the conference table he places a two-inch-thick Tuscaloosa Forward binder, and on the cover, under his name, “Mayor Appointment” is typed in bold, black ink.
It’s only 10 a.m., and Wedgeworth has driven across town, responded to multiple phone calls and checked on the community he called home for more than five years.
“Two foundations for two apartments complexes down,” he said.
Wedgeworth continues to monitor the progress being made on the Rosedale property while 96 displaced families live scattered across the city.
Just a day in the life of a mayor. The Mayor of Rosedale, that is.
After the April 27 tornado destroyed 80 of the 188 units, Wedgeworth has been the go-to man for information about Rosedale for public officials and community members alike.
Before the storm, plans were already in the works to revitalize the housing project. Residents met with city officials in the gym to discuss plans for the future of Rosedale. At the meeting, Wedgeworth and other members of the community were given a map of the property with the names of every resident labeled over the unit they occupied.
The map, Wedgeworth said, helped locate neighbors just hours after the tornado touched down.
“If we couldn’t pinpoint where somebody was, we could go ask Doug,” said Dino Fort, assistant executive director at the Tuscaloosa Housing Authority. “Doug knew where they were.”
On the morning of April 27, Wedgeworth drove to his aunt’s house just one street over. Instead of spending 30 or 45 minutes visiting like he usually did, Wedgeworth stayed until just minutes before the storm hit.
“Something bad is going to happen today, I’ve just got this feeling,” Wedgeworth told his family.
His family responded, “You think you’re the weatherman.”
Once the sky turned dark gray and rain began beating harder on the roof, Wedgeworth said the Lord told him to get up and go home.
“The third time he said ‘Get up, go home,’ I got up and started walking from my aunt’s house. I felt just like someone was walking with me, patting my back, just like he’s saying, ‘Turn around!’”
As soon as Wedgeworth turned around, he saw it. The mile-wide EF-4 tornado was crossing Greensboro Avenue right before his eyes.
“I’m frozen,” he said. “I’ve never seen this before – I’ve seen it on television – but who has ever actually been in it this bad and lived to tell about it? I saw it pick up a house. I mean, the farther and farther the house rose, all I kept screaming was, ‘Those people are dead.’ It just it exploded. It just shattered.”
Rock and dirt began to stir in the air, and Wedgeworth ran though Rosedale Court warning neighbors of the approaching storm.
“When I turned around again, it was as wide as I could see. Dark. Just whipping.”
Wedgeworth darted into his apartment and took shelter in the bathtub with his girlfriend.
“If you’re going to take me, take me quick,” he prayed.
Once the skies cleared and the winds calmed, panic set in.
“It was just chaos,” Wedgeworth said. “It happened, then I was with the police standing over the body of the girl I’ve found. I’d just spoke to that lady on my way to my aunt’s house. I’d just had a 10- or 15-minute conversation with her.” Wedgeworth recovered the body of 26-year-old Shena Hutchins from the rubble steps away from his own unit. Another bloodied neighbor was out in the street yelling about his wife and children who were trapped in their apartment with a wall on top of them.
Along with city officials, Wedgeworth cleared debris and pulled others from the destruction. When night fell, Wedgeworth walked to the Chevron station where buses were taking people to shelters around the city. But he couldn’t go.
“I can’t go to a shelter,” he said to himself. “All these strange people – that’s a lot of people. You can fix your house, board the windows or something, and just stay. It’ll be better tomorrow.”
For two days Wedgeworth and a few others snuck back into their apartments to continue the rescue mission and help neighbors guard and recover personal belongings. In his own apartment, Wedgeworth was able to salvage his own valuables.
“My mother’s keepsake,” he said. “That was the most important. You can’t get pictures and stuff back. Once you lose them in storms, you can get those back.”
His generous spirit both before and after the tornado inspired neighbors to dub him the mayor of Rosedale.
“You’ve got the mayor of Tuscaloosa and the mayor of Rosedale,” he said. “I look out for Rosedale. I really do.”
As a member of the Citizens Advisory Committee, Wedgeworth and other Tuscaloosa residents chosen based on recommendations, review their fellow citizens’ plans for the future of Tuscaloosa.
Mayor Walt Maddox said members like Wedgeworth understand just how difficult recovery could be and how meaningful it needed to be to rebuild in a way to honor those who lost so much.
“He has been an unbelievable asset to the city,” Maddox said. “If anyone deserved the title and responsibilities as the Mayor of Rosedale, it would be Doug.”
Maddox said Wedgeworth was chosen because officials knew how deeply he cares about his community. People like him, Maddox said, are the type of people you want by your side when you need advice.
“Everything he talks about, everything he believes in is straight from the heart,” Maddox said. “Doug is one of those who actively jumps in and wants to help and wants to make a difference.”
For his service, whether it be delivering food from the West Alabama Food Bank to the doors of elderly residents before the tornado or working closely with city officials afterwards, Wedgeworth has not received any money.
“I get my blessings,” he said. “Why should you look for payment every time you do something for somebody? Do it because you want to do it for them. I feel like that’s my gift. The Lord put us all here for a reason. I feel like He has me here to help people. I don’t care who it is."
On the day construction workers tore down the walls of what remained of Rosedale Court, Wedgeworth and a few neighbors stood quietly and watched it fall.
“It was kind of sad to see it go,” he said. “But you’ve got to understand, there’s going to be something more beautiful than it was last time. It’s something to look forward to”
It won’t be like it used to be though, he said, because it can never be like it used to be.
“A lot of us want to come back, but a lot of them don’t,” he said. “But they need to understand, you can’t run from God. Stop running from God. Because you can submit yourself to God; because this could happen anywhere.”
The tornado, Wedgeworth said, gave the community just what it needed – a wake up call.
“He [Jesus] gave me a new lease on life. There’s a lot of stuff I used to do I don’t do anymore. I’m not supposed be here. I’m supposed to be sucked up off my porch.”