TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Gene Stallings was right.
The former head football coach at Alabama told me that the destruction in Tuscaloosa would have to be seen in person to be believed. Stallings was on the outskirts of the city on April 27 when the tornadoes hit.
"The state patrolman stopped me and wouldn't let me go any further," said Stallings, who lives in Texas but was supposed to host a charity golf tournament that weekend in Alabama. "He said, 'Coach, it's going to be real bad.'"
|Ex-'Bama coach Gene Stallings saw the destruction first hand. (US Presswire)|
• Alberta City, a blue-collar community east of the Alabama campus, looked like a war zone. There were entire neighborhoods destroyed as far as the eye could see. A church was entirely swept away except for the steeple. The death toll in Tuscaloosa stands at 41. Looking at Alberta City, it was a miracle that anybody survived. The only thing that saved many of its residents was that it was within walking distance of the DCH Medical Center.
• Driving South on McFarland Boulevard, the main road into Tuscaloosa, I look to my right and there is a van belonging to Full Moon BBQ amid the rubble. It is totally destroyed. Rachel points out, however, that the Full Moon BBQ restaurant was actually on the OTHER side of McFarland. The tornado had picked up the van and carried it over 400 yards. There were 13 customers and employees in the Full Moon when the tornado hit. The manager herded them all into the freezer in the back of the store. Miraculously, no one was killed. After the storm passed, there was nothing left of the Full Moon but the freezer.
• There is a randomness to some of these storms that is hard to comprehend. It barely missed Bryant-Denny Stadium and the Alabama campus. It missed the huge hospital complex at the DCH Medical Center, where the injured sought refuge.
But just a few hundred yards away, the first mile or so of 15th Street is one pile of rubble after another where homes and businesses once stood. Amid those piles is the damaged storefront of Stephanie's Flowers, which proudly proclaims that they are open for business.
"I don't know if it's survivor's guilt but early on people felt like they should not be getting on with their lives," said Baribeau. "I talked to a hairdresser who had 15 appointments cancelled. It's tough. People are not quite sure what to do. But a lot of them want to do something that feels normal."
• The donation and distribution center on 15th is just slammed with people who need help and people who want to give help. The warehouse is absolutely packed with food, toiletries, baby supplies, clothes, shoes, bags and everything for people who have seen every possession they have blown away by these killer storms. I met a determined silver-haired lady driving a pickup truck with a huge trailer behind it. She was loading up to help people in another part of town.
"They come to get what they need and then they go back to what little is left of their homes," she said. "They are afraid to leave. They are afraid something else is going to happen. It just breaks your heart."
• The encouraging thing at this distribution center is that a lot of students from Alabama, Auburn, Stillman and other surrounding colleges were involved. After the storm hit, Alabama told its students they could go home even if they had not yet taken their final exams. "How could you leave when so many people need help?" one young female student told me. "My apartment was blown way but I'm okay. I'm lucky."
A lot of Alabama students were not lucky. After talking to Gene Stallings last week I learned that Shannon Brown, who played for Stallings at Alabama, lost his daughter, Loryn, to the storm. She was a student at Alabama. The death toll for Alabama and Stillman College students is at least eight.
As the temperatures rose to over 90 degrees on Tuesday, people just kept working and appeared optimistic on a couple of fronts. They are heartened by the show of support that has come from everywhere. Hank Williams, Jr., (whose father's boyhood home is in Georgiana, Ala., near Montgomery) was in Tuscaloosa on Tuesday and will take part in a telethon to raise funds for the relief effort. Our friend, Erin Andrews of ESPN, will co-host the event.
The SEC has stepped up and given $500,000 to the University of Alabama. The school's very successful athletics department has contributed $1 million to the effort.
The folks on 15th street were also starting to look forward to football season, which starts on Sept. 3 against Kent State at Bryant-Denny Stadium.
"We don't take anything for granted now, but I'm anxious to see where Tuscaloosa is and what kind of shape we'll be in when the first game is played," said a male student holding as many bags of diapers that he could carry. "I just think there will be a little extra excitement and joy when this football season gets here."
But there was one haunting moment as Rachel and I prepared to leave. Another older lady recognized me from some of the TV work that I do. She had lived long enough to know that early in a catastrophe like this, there are a lot of well-meaning people who want to help. Over the long haul the celebrities and the TV news cameras move on to the next thing. That's just the way it is. The work of rebuilding Tuscaloosa will go on for years.
"Please don't let people forget about us," she said.
I promised her I wouldn't.