I wanted to write this sooner but when you’re covering a major news story for a TV network like ours, there’s precious little time for anything other than broadcasting.
Everything else – sleep included – is put on hold.
At “stupid o’ clock” on Thursday morning, my team, producer Barbara, cameraman Craig and I, drove from Louisville Kentucky, where we’d been working on a flooding story, to reach Tuscaloosa, Alabama, site of one of the biggest hits in what was the worst series of tornadoes to strike the USA since the 1930s.
We were joined towards the end of the day by another AJE cameraman, Martin, and his assistant, Dana, plus one of our best technical producers Rob. Our satellite engineer was Greg.
All of us spent the next three days reporting the tragedy that wiped out somewhere between five and seven thousand homes and businesses, according to Tuscaloosa’s mayor, Walter Maddox.
I thought I’d share some conversations I had with people in the affected zone.
Walter Maddox is the 36th mayor of Tuscaloosa. He was sworn in for a second term in 2009 and we first met him as he surveyed the damage along a street where our satellite truck was parked. Walter stood out because he was wearing a perfectly pressed white shirt and no jacket.
He serves without affiliation to either the Republican or Democratic parties and seems very popular among his people. Every few steps, constituents stopped to congratulate him, to wish him well and thank him for speaking up for Tuscaloosa.
Walter had been with Barack Obama earlier in the day during the US president’s whistle-stop tour of the damaged areas. I asked him why some people seemed to be sitting all day on the stoop of the wrecked homes.
“It’s shock,” he said. “They have nowhere to go and they don’t know what to do so they come back to where their homes once stood waiting for something to happen – some are waiting for news of missing loved ones who may still be trapped inside.”
Bobby Herndon is also a mayor. “I’m a part time mayor,” he told me.
Bobby is in charge of the smaller next door town of Northport, Alabama and he and his team were in Tuscaloosa handing out free food, water and soft drinks. “It’s little brother looking after big brother,” he said.
The volunteer effort is impressive. This is the deep south and churches and community groups have the power to rally their congregations in times of crisis.
Elizabeth – who didn’t want to give her second name – stood out because she was wearing doctors’ whites and a stethoscope.
She told me through tears how she and her husband saw the tornado rip into Tuscaloosa on live TV and feared that they were watching their daughter, a student at Alabama University, die before their eyes. Elizabeth’s daughter survived but there are some students still unaccounted for many hours after the tornado roared through.
Elizabeth became tearful again when telling me about the search and rescue operation that she and her husband had joined for a five-year-old girl. The girl had been torn from her mother’s arms in the shelter of their bathroom when the tornado took a direct hit on their small government provided house.
It took all day to find the toddler but her little body finally turned up when someone spotted her hair tumbling out of an upside down sofa on the edge of the road. She’d been there all day. No one knew. A heart-breaking moment.
We found Tessa Hicks cleaning up her front yard at Forest Lake with her family. She’d been in her house with her husband and dog when the storm struck on a street where many members of her family lived. She couldn’t believe her eyes when she ventured outside from the shelter of her interior bathroom.
Tessa was married to husband Nolan on the lawn of their house last October. Now the building has been wrecked and there’s a huge iron girder wrapped incongruously around what remains of a group of trees on her lawn. Hanging between two other trees I saw Tessa’s wedding dress drying in the sun.
I asked her where you start when clearing up? “You just grab what you can and get on with the clean up,” she said. Tessa counts herself lucky to be alive, not least because she has the use of a nearby lakeside house where her entire family is camped out and where they do have power, cable TV and running water.
Tessa, a dance teacher, told me she intends to be at work on Monday morning preparing for her firm’s annual gala next weekend.
June is a large, jolly woman who lives with her husband Gary at a trailer park called Chalet Ridge just outside Tuscaloosa.
On the drive up we saw an entire forest of trees blown down by the storm.
When the monster tornado came calling it smashed most of the trailers in the vicinity. June and 45 other people crammed themselves into a small “Anderson Shelter” of the kind seen in Britain during World War II.
On the night in question last Wednesday, June was in charge of opening and closing the door to the shelter as the storm approached. When it came over the top of their little hillside, she said it felt as if the shelter and everyone inside was being sucked from the ground.
“God is good,” June kept saying. I asked her about her mobile home. “It’s gone,” she said, “but we do a lot of praying in our bedroom and car and God left both of those intact. He also made sure Gary’s toolbox survived. He left in place just what we need right now.”
It’s very common to hear people evoking the name of the Lord in this God-fearing community, in Tuscaloosa and in multiple other locations in the south that will continue until things are put right many months down the road.