I figure now that I have been accepted, there’s no harm in publishing my essay about what I experienced when I visited Tuscaloosa. Here it is:
Driving into Tuscaloosa, AL on US-82 is usually a pretty smooth ride, but after the record-setting tornado that ripped through the town earlier this year our trip there was anything but.
My younger sister was studying for her finals at the University of Alabama when the April 27 tornado swept through Tuscaloosa. I got a text message from my mom saying, “Bad tornado hit Rachel’s school and stadium.”
I immediately called Rachel to make sure she was safe. She told me she was in her dorm where they heard the storm. She got out of her room and went into the hallway. Luckily, she had no idea how bad things really were outside. I turned on the news and stared in horror.
I did not tell her all I was seeing. All I told her was how glad I was because she was safe, and I told her she needed to stay inside.
The storm passed, and the campus made it through with only minor damages. The same could not be said for the rest of Tuscaloosa. In just two days after the tornado struck, it was confirmed at least 87 people—four of them students at the university—died. The university canceled finals, and everyone began realizing the extent of the damage. I had no prior intention of going to Tuscaloosa after my semester ended.
When that “supercell” thunderstorm hit and I learned all that happened, I had to go up there. I needed to see it firsthand.
Once my semester ended, I met my parents in Fairhope, AL. The three of us drove up to Tuscaloosa in their Chevy Suburban. They had purchased a pallet of water and loaded it into a U-Haul trailer. I collected food, blankets and anything else people at Florida State University could donate.
I took my camera and laptop, and I documented everything I saw. The pictures told a much more powerful story than any words could capture.
The drive to Tuscaloosa was like any other long-distance drive in my family. Dad was in the driver’s seat while mom was in the passenger seat. It all changed once we got onto US-82. We started seeing downed trees and power lines. One house was completely unscathed, but their next-door neighbors were left with nothing more than a foundation. The closer we got to Tuscaloosa, the fewer unscathed homes we saw.
Just south of Tuscaloosa, US-82 becomes McFarland Boulevard. Almost immediately at the start of McFarland began the total destruction. I started snapping photos, even as the car was going 50 miles per hour down the highway. My mouth hung open in awe of all the destruction I was seeing. Tears filled my mother’s eyes, realizing her baby was only two blocks from this when the tornado went through and my father just shook his head—this was his alma mater.
We got to the intersection of McFarland and 15th Street—the major intersection—none of us could believe what we saw. Rubble and debris were strewn all over. Business signs, houses and building materials were thrown like toothpicks. Travel was not allowed westbound on 15th Street, but the damage could be seen from McFarland.
I saw it all: national guardsmen, looting, pain and suffering. What was once a strip mall was reduced to a pile of scrap. My camera had never been so taxed with back-to-back photos.
While uploading the photos to my computer I was able to recapture all of the emotion I felt while I snapped each photo: sadness. With photos staring back at me, I began writing.
My article became more than just a story. It became a plea for help. I knew the people in Tuscaloosa needed it. It fell on me and other journalists reporting the story to see they got the help they needed. Other journalists documented the “let’s get there and get this done” attitude that hundreds of alumni and parents brought to lend a hand.
This tragedy helped me expand my view of reporting from fairly simple local and university news to large-scale, national stories. In the face of such devastation, it was rewarding to know I was able to help a community as tightly knit as Tuscaloosa.