Discussion with Tuscaloosa Mayor Walter Maddox on four-year anniversary of tornado outbreak

Apr 24, 2015

The State of Alabama is remembering the Tornado outbreak that happened on this day four years ago.  APR’s MacKenzie Bates sat down with Tuscaloosa Mayor Walter Maddox who describes the experience in just two words…

“Chaotic and triumphant,” Maddox says.  “None of us could have imagined what we were going to anticipate during that day when 12.5 percent of our city was destroyed, 5,300 homes, businesses and institutions that were impacted, two-thirds of those ultimately either were destroyed outright or had to be demolished.  1,200 were injured and 53 fatalities… the statistics are overwhelming.”

“The triumphant part was, never during the course of the minutes, hours, days months and now years following that day have we ever relented.  It’s been this amazing spirit of this community that just continues to elevate us and make certain that, that day does not define who we are.”

Where were you when the tornado hit?

“I was here at city hall,” Maddox says.  “Our command center actually was being renovated which is two floors below my office.  We set up a temporary command center that day in the Daugherty Conference Room on this floor.  We had set it up in large part Number One in understanding that there were significant chances of severe weather, but we felt also we might need to assist other municipalities who might be impacted.”

“When the tornado warning went in to effect, the majority of my staff went downstairs.  We could see the tornado on one of our traffic cameras.”

The Tornado passes.  You go out and see the destruction it caused…

“It’s one of the most overwhelming scenes of my life,” Maddox says.  “The first time I saw the damage, it really felt like an out-of-body experience.  And quite frankly, from the moment you saw it on television… that in it of itself was surreal because you think, ‘that’s my community here on CNN.’”

“And then you’re out in it and everything is gone.  And we’ve had tornadoes before.  I’ve been part of responses with tornado damage and there was nothing to compare this to.  With people wandering without any direction, people injured, bleeding, our emergency system was completely overwhelmed.”

And he we are on the four-year anniversary and you can still see the impacts the tornado caused…

“The scars are deep,” Maddox says.  “When 71 percent of the homes that were destroyed were rental with a median income of less than $25,000, in fact 32 percent of the homes were destroyed had a median income of less than $15,000.  When 114 of the 300 small businesses that were impacted were built before the city even had zoning in the early ‘70s, it wasn’t going to be an easy recovery.  Especially in one that was in a post-recessionary environment and one that with very little federal assistance compared to previous disasters.”

“But we have done a good job of planning strategically.  Our zoning, our infrastructure, our parks and all of the elements that make a city great and that planning has ensured a great development now and in to the future.  It’s clear that the “Tuscaloosa Forward” plan that was driven by tens of thousands of citizens of citizens that participated is going to be the marker by which other communities are measured against if they ever experience a catastrophic disaster.”

You’ve got several other businesses that have already rebuilt after the tornado.  They still wanted to be a part of this community despite what had happened to the previous locations.

“Recovery is complicated because the majority of the 12.5 percent of the city that was destroyed had poor infrastructure,” Maddox says.  “In many cases, they were struggling economically before the tornado.  In other cases, it took the tornado six minutes to go through our city and in the seventh minute, land prices tripled.  Property owners, who had every right, made decisions not to renew leases and to seek another type of business model.  When you have 5,300 property owners who all have a different vision of how we want to rebuild and how that rebuilding should be like, it was indeed a challenge for all of us to take all of that, put it together and put a framework (on it) that can help this community succeed and I believe ultimately it has.”

“I had a mayor of a major city tell me a few days after the tornado, he called me to give me some encouragement but also he had been through a similar type of disaster. He said, ‘Walt. You need to do it the right way.  You’d rather people be mad at you for three years than be mad at you for a life time.’  We have built back for that lifetime and I’m very proud where Tuscaloosa is going and what’s even more exciting is what’s about to happen.  Tens of millions of dollars of infusion of grant money that we’ve worked hard to apply for is about to be invested in to infrastructure.  Tens of millions of dollars of more housing and commercial development that’s about to take place.  We’re getting to the point now where we can transition from a recovery phase to a ‘look what’s happening next’ phase and that’s very satisfying.”

"We couldn’t control what happened to us on April 27, (2011) but we could control how we recovered.  And I’m very proud of our community and what we’ve together have been able to accomplish.”