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A year after Tuscaloosa tornadoes, Saban, Tide still helping to rebuild

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Saban says the rebuilding effort in Tuscaloosa is 'just getting started.' (Getty Images)  
Saban says the rebuilding effort in Tuscaloosa is 'just getting started.' (Getty Images)  

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Pastor Larry Corder has a lot of memories about April 27, 2011. The one he can't shake, the one that will probably never go away, was the utter feeling of helplessness.

Corder was at home, some 12 miles away from the Alberta Baptist Church -- his church -- when he got the first call that the tornadoes were coming. Corder was already carrying a heavy heart because Brenda, his wife of 42 years, had recently been diagnosed with a rare form of blood cancer.

To understand what Larry Corder felt at that moment, you have to know about his connection to this church. He and Brenda grew up in the Alberta Baptist Church in the 1960s. They married in the sanctuary. When he returned to Alberta Baptist in 2004 as the senior pastor, Corder found a church in a part of town known for crime and illegal drugs.

There was work to be done, and in August 2010 the Alberta Baptist Church celebrated and rededicated its sanctuary after a $1.8 million renovation. Take a look. But when the tornado headed down University Avenue towards McFarland Boulevard, the Alberta Baptist Church never had a chance.

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"I knew the church was right in the path of the tornado, but I had to stay at home because they told us another one might be coming," he said. "After they gave the all-clear, I tried to get down there to see the church, but I couldn't. The destruction and the traffic were just too bad."

The tornadoes hit Tuscaloosa on a Wednesday. It was Friday before Corder could finally reach his church.

"I got out of my car to see the damage and I just couldn't believe it," Corder said. "A camera crew and a reporter from CNN were there. I had to ask them to wait and give me a minute to pull myself together."

Here is some footage shot right after the tornado.

Larry Corder and many others who dedicate their lives to helping people have been busy this week as Tuscaloosa remembers the devastation and loss of life that took place one year ago today. Yes, a lot of debris has been taken away in the past 365 days. But as I recently drove down University Avenue, where some of the poorest of the poor were left with nothing, there are still lots of scars and twisted dreams that are clearly not going to heal for a long, long time -- if ever.

"I can't believe it has been a year, and a lot of good has been done in that year," said Nick Saban, the head football coach at Alabama. "But it is also true that there are a lot of people in Tuscaloosa that are still really hurting. We said at the time that this rebuilding project will last years. We're just getting started."

Saban and the University of Alabama, whose campus was spared from the very worst of the storms, have certainly done their part.

Saban and his wife, Terry, have a foundation called Nick's Kids that was created to help underprivileged children. When the tornadoes hit last year, the couple promised to build at least 13 new homes -- one for each of Alabama's national championships -- for families displaced by the storm. The "13 For 13" campaign had to be modified last January when Alabama beat LSU to record its 14th national championship. Work on the 14th home has just begun.

Many of the new homes were built on land that first had to be cleared. A lot of that work was done by Alabama football players.

"Service to others helps us grow as people," said Barrett Jones, Alabama's All-America offense lineman and the 2011 Outland Trophy winner. "We have a pretty good life as football players, but there are people in Tuscaloosa who still need a lot of help."

Last week more than 1,200 students, faculty and staff at the university turned out for the UA Day of Service. They were taken by bus to the hardest hit parts of Tuscaloosa to continue the cleanup effort.

Corder believes Alabama's success on the football field has played a significant role in the healing process for Tuscaloosa.

"I'm a huge sports fan and the athletic teams at the university have been very much involved in the relief effort," he said. "It gives people something to rally around and to take our minds off our troubles."

There are some signs things are getting better. The Krispy Kreme donut franchise, which had been on McFarland since 1980, was completely destroyed by the tornado. The owner, Evan Smith, immediately promised to rebuild. After wrangling with the city for months over red tape, they finally broke ground last week.

The McDonalds on 15th Street, one of the hardest hit parts of the city, finally reopened on Thursday.

The Alberta Baptist Church fought with its insurance company for 10 months, "but we still weren't made whole," Corder said. "We've just completed the demolition. If all goes well, our congregation will be able to return in the fall of next year."

Until then, its weekly services will be held at the Open Door Baptist Church, where Keith Pugh, a wide receiver on Bear Bryant's national championship teams of 1978 and 1979, is the senior pastor.

Each store that reopens, each institution that begins to rebuild, is a tiny step on the way back to normalcy for Tuscaloosa.

"But the process has been painfully slow," said Rachel Baribeau, a Tuscaloosa resident who hosts a sports talk radio show in nearby Birmingham. "We all want things to be better right now and we've all had to learn that it just takes time. That is not an easy thing to do."

(Here is Rachel's video about the tornado.)

Corder says the slow pace of the recovery has been difficult, especially for the older members of his congregation. He worries about how many of them will be there when the doors to the church finally reopen in 2013. Corder said he has conducted over 20 funerals in the past year.

"But the positive is that it has forced us out of our four walls and into the community," he said. "The church is not the building. It is the people. We learned that. And a lot of people in Tuscaloosa have learned that too."


Tony Barnhart is in his fifth season as a contributor to CBSSports.com. He is a college football analyst for CBS Sports and The CBS Sports Network. Prior to joining CBS he was the national college football writer for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for 24 years. He has written five books on college football.
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