On April 27, 2011, a massive tornado destroyed 12.5 percent of the City of Tuscaloosa, in a matter of just six minutes.
Five years later, signs of the storm are still evident across the city, whether it is in the form of new homes and businesses, construction, or in some cases, still vacant lots.
To those who might think rebuilding has been slow, Forest Lake homeowner Linda Parsons says before this experience, she probably would have thought the same.
“The recovery and rebuilding has been slower than I think anybody could have anticipated,” Parsons said. “Until you’ve lived through it, you don’t even know what’s involved.”
Parsons initially thought her home could be repaired following the tornado, but soon realized the structural damage was too great. It took Parsons and her husband two years to rebuild their new home on their lot in Forest Lake. Parsons points to things like delays in supplies and labor, in a time when thousands of people are trying to rebuild, as just some of the reasons the rebuilding process can move slowly.
“When people talk to me about why things are taking so long, I just say, ‘How long do you have?’ I could tell them a lot about the complexity of rebuilding,” Parsons laughed.
Now, Parsons says she is glad to be back home in Forest Lake. Other neighbors have also rebuilt, but she says over the next few years, she hopes more homes take the place of the vacant lots now for sale.
From his perspective, Tuscaloosa Mayor Walt Maddox shares some of Parsons’ views on the complicated nature of rebuilding.
“If you would have asked me the day after April 27, I would have probably said in five years then, I wish we were further,” Maddox said. “Three months after the tornado, when we had the data, we knew this was going to be a 10 to 15 year process. So today, absolutely, I’m really astonished we’ve been able to go as far as we’ve been able to go.”
City of Tuscaloosa statistics show more than 5,000 Tuscaloosa residences were either damaged or destroyed by the tornado and 356 businesses were either damaged or destroyed. According to Maddox, the majority of residences destroyed were rental property, and many of the displaced residents had a median income of less than $25,000 yearly. As far as impacted businesses, Maddox said many were underinsured or built before the city had codes.
Maddox cites other challenges facing Tuscaloosa in the aftermath of the storm as antiquated infrastructure, a large floodway cutting through the recovery zone, as well as the loss of six city facilities, 85 percent of the city’s heavy equipment and 17 percent of police property.
Although Tuscaloosa’s rebuilding strategy has its critics, Maddox still stands by the city’s plan.
“It’s always easy for those who have no understanding of the complexities, or who didn’t live in the 12 1/2 percent to say they would have done it differently. But I really believe us taking the strategic long view is going to serve this city well now and into the future.”
Maddox points to new growth as proof the city’s strategy is working. He references The Shoppes at Legacy Park, which he says will generate a million dollars more each year in taxes, than the former Cedar Crest neighborhood. Maddox says he is proud of commercial development along 15th street, and of the public investment in Alberta. He believes the Alberta and 10th Avenue areas are now set to see development over the next five years, with their proximity to the University of Alabama.
As for the ongoing construction near the McFarland Blvd. and 15th Street intersection, the Mayor again says there is more than what meets the eye.
“We had to do about 400,000 of water distribution improvements, because in rebuilding that area the water pressure wouldn’t be sufficient to provide any type of reconstruction or enough to put fires out,” Maddox said. “That takes six months to engineer, over a year to make happen. They don’t know the long term master plan that’s going to create new turn lanes. Now, they can begin to see that. Or the new fiber that we’re burying that’s putting new adaptive signal technology in. Again, all those things don’t happen magically.”
Today, Maddox says the city is still coping with $922 million in unmet needs, or what he describes as the difference between what needs to be done, and what insurance covered. That figure includes needs for infrastructure, housing and economic revitalization. Maddox points to the city’s success thus far in seeking grants as a way to offset the financial burden to the city, and says the city will continue working to meet the unmet needs.
Ultimately, 53 lives were lost in the Tuscaloosa area as a result of the April 27, 2011 tornado. Maddox says the five year mark will be an emotional time for many city workers, and obviously for the families impacted by the storm. He says the thought of what happened to his hometown and the people in it can still be overwhelming to him. But, Maddox says the City’s rebuilding work must continue, doing what it can to heal the scars of April 27.
“If you lost someone, there’s nothing I can ever do that will change that dynamic, or if you lost your business, there’s nothing I can ever do to change that dynamic. But in my own way, the work that we do here, maybe I can make life just a little better, somehow, some way. And that’s the thought process, moving forward.”
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