Six years later, UA professors remember 2011 tornados

Six years later, UA professors remember 2011 tornados
Drew Hoover / Alabama Crimson White

CW File

About three blocks behind Tuscaloosa's Central High School, right off Hargrove Road, is a neighborhood that Lydia Avant has called home for 11 years now. There's a park across the street from her house where her children like to play in the evenings.

"I have three kids, and my youngest just turned two," Avant said. "She loves going to the park. That's a place where all the neighborhood kids go in the evening."

Six years ago, much of this neighborhood was destroyed by the tornados that ravaged through Tuscaloosa and Birmingham on the afternoon of April 27, 2011. The neighborhood's previously standing oak trees were strewn on top of roads and houses, and no such park existed. The 29 confirmed tornados in Central Alabama were a slew of the 62 confirmed tornados throughout the state of Alabama that day. The historical storms left Tuscaloosa devastated. The death toll across seven states was 337, six of whom were UA students. 

"We knew the weather was going to be bad," said Avant, who was a reporter at The Tuscaloosa News during the time of the tornados. "That morning a tornado went through the eastern part of town. It was a wake up call that it was going to continue."

Avant now works full time at the University as editor at Alumni Magazine and as an adjunct instructor of journalism. Before the tornado, the park where her children now play was a neighbor's home. It was destroyed by the tornado, and the owner sold it to Susan Cork, who donated the land to the neighborhood. 

The day of the tornado, Avant went home at lunch and instructed her husband, who worked at the Culverhouse College of Commerce at the time, to take their daughter to his office in preparation of the storm. She returned to work at the newsroom at The Tuscaloosa News. 

"The only person in our house at the time was our cocker spaniel," Avant said. "They told everyone in the newsroom to go to the basement. People brought their kids and picked up their dogs. I remember feeling really guilty that I left my dog at home." 

As the tornado hit, Avant and her coworkers gathered to watch a broadcast from James Spann, the popular meteorologist from Birmingham. Just as he was reporting a large tornado in the area, the TV and power went off. After the storm hit, Avant thought first of her home and family. Her cocker spaniel was safe inside the house. 

"I told my editor I needed to go check our house and neighborhood and then I could start reporting," she said. "I remember running into the house and our dog was OK. It still looked like it did before but outside the house the entire neighborhood was wrecked. I remember praying to God 'thank you' and praying that everybody was OK." 

Avant's house was one of only a few in her neighborhood that was untouched by the storm. The next day, she went back to work to start reporting. She covered the Northport and Tuscaloosa city councils at the time, as well as the health beat, but that day every reporter was out covering the storm. The Tuscaloosa News won a Pulitzer Prize for their breaking news coverage of the tornados. 

"It didn't matter what beat you covered, you went out covering various aspects of the tornado," she said. 

The tornado stories were some of the last Avant reported before leaving for maternity leave a few months later. It was some of the most meaningful work she's done, she said.

"I wanted everything to be back to normal before the baby was born in July," Avant said. "It was just emotionally very difficult living through that. Part of my job as a reporter was telling the stories of people who lived through the storm. It was difficult because I loved telling those stories but I had to live through that too at home. [The baby] was born exactly three months to the day from the tornado." 

Everyone who was here that day in April of 2011 has a different experience and a unique story of what happened. 

"I remember it really clearly," said Michael Steinberg, an associate professor in the New College and the geography department. "It never even rained. It was really eerie."

Steinberg has been at the University for 10 years now. That year, UA cancelled graduation and graduation activities in the wake of the events of the storm.

"It was a really emotional time," Steinberg said. "It wouldn't have been appropriate to have a celebratory event."

President Barack Obama made a visit to Tuscaloosa to show support for the victims of the storm and the Tuscaloosa community.

"I thought that was symbolically important that the president visited," Steinberg said. "I thought that was really nice and appropriate of him to make an appearance."

Andy Grace, a current professor in the department of Journalism and Creative Media who teaches the Documenting Justice course, used his experience of surviving a disaster to create an interactive documentary that tells the story of April 27, 2011. "After the Storm" premiered in 2015 and has since been nominated for several awards, including a Webby and an Emmy. 

"I think I had some unresolved issues after the storm about what it means to live in a place that changes suddenly and radically, instantly really," Grace said. "I used this thing that happened to our community to make something totally different than I ever have before. I think artists are looking for ways to process the world around us. I was trying to make sense."

The reactions from people who survived the tornados were the most humbling, he said.

"Hearing people who went through the tornado was the most humbling part of that piece," he said.

Six years after the tornado, Avant and her family still live in their neighborhood off of Hargrove Road. Emotional ties to the neighborhood and its people have kept them there, she said.

"We knew people in the neighborhood before the tornado but the tornado brought everyone closer," Avant said. "I feel like some of the neighbors are my family. If the tornado hadn't hit, I don't know if we would have stayed in the neighborhood this long."

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