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2011 Tornadoes-- "A Tale of Two Cities"

All this week on Alabama Public Radio, we’re looking back on the tornadoes that hit Alabama on April 27, 2011. In Tuscaloosa, twelve percent of the city was destroyed and fifty four people were killed. The home of the University of Alabama wasn’t the only community hit with a life altering storm that year. And, how Tuscaloosa went about the process of rebuilding was considered controversial. Five years later, here's  a report card in this "tale of two cities…"

“At that point, we understood this was going to be something like we’ve never seen in the history of our city.”

“You could look north and south and east and west, and you couldn’t see any familiar landmarks. They were all gone.”

Mayor Walt Maddox and Mayor Mike Seibert sound like they’re talking about one disaster--they’re not. An EF-4 tornado hit Tuscaloosa five years ago this month… Three weeks after Tuscaloosa’s storm, one hundred and fifty Joplin residents died when an EF-5 twister tore through here. Mike Seibert is the Mayor… “And, all of a sudden I’d come to a five lane road, and I had absolutely no idea where I was.”

“It was like hell on earth….” says Judy Petty. She remembers that day. Petty owns Frank’s Tavern on Main Street in Joplin. “People walking, people crying, it was awful…awful. Houses blown away, everything down. It was very sad." Petty owns Frank’s Tavern on Main Street in Joplin. She describes it as, literally, the bar where everybody knows your name. The name Frank on the door, in case you were wondering, is Petty’s late husband. He bought the place before they got married…

“Yeah, the bar came with him…”

“There was nothing left. Just a pile of bricks and stone and rooves,” recalls Petty.

Judy Petty’s story is a familiar one to Brian Sanders. He owns the Express Oil Change auto shop on Fifteenth Street in Tuscaloosa. That where he was in 2011 when that tornado hit his town. It was just about closing time…

“So, we’re just sitting here, sitting here, sitting here, and they say ‘hey, this thing’s turning,’ and we saw it come from behind McDonald’s,” says Sanders. He and his staff hid in a grease pit until it passed. When they came out, his business was gone. “The only thing I remembered thinking was what am I gonna do now? You know…it was terrible.”

Both Petty and Sanders chose to rebuild, and that meant wading through red tape. They say their experiences in Joplin and in Tuscaloosa were different in some ways, and similar in others.

Back at City hall in Joplin, Mayor Seibert says his city chose to issue permits fast… “One of the things we’ve really worked hard on is just to take of our own, but to do that in a manner that people can get back to their normal lives as quickly as they can…”

That’s not how Tuscaloosa did it…

Mayor Walt Maddox chose to slow the process down and bring in consultants. Following the tornado, residents filed past drawings of urban centers mixing residents and retail. Maddox says Tuscaloosa wasn’t worried about losing residents like Joplin if homes weren’t rebuilt quickly… “Coupled on top of that, the twelve percent of the city that was destroyed was economically depressed. So, we knew we had an opportunity to remake these areas, if we could slow down and be strategic. We had time. We were not under a housing crunch."

But, a different kind of crunch came in the press. A year after the storm, the Wall Street Journal ran an article critical of Maddox’s slow building route instead of Joplin’s speedier approach. The Mayor still bristles at the story… “The people of Tuscaloosa went through hell and back, and they deserved a rebuilding plan that mattered,” says Maddox. “That was going to improve this community now and into the future. And, I’m glad that this city decided to be part of that, and when the challenge came, they had the courage of our convictions to see it through.”

But, five years after the fact, how did each city do? We first met Brian Sanders at the Express Oil Change in Tuscaloosa in 2012, the day he reopened his shop eighteen months after the tornado. The reviews that day were good…

“The first one that pulled up this morning, when I walked out to her car, she said ‘yay’. She said ‘I’m so glad you’re back.’ And, I said well, I’m as happy to see you as you are to see us.’

Four years later, we checked back to see how things were going. Sanders says, in hindsight, his dealings with the city went just okay… “I know they wanted to put a park in, and they wanted to put several businesses in. But, it was frustrating to think we might have to move,” he says. “Because this part of town is home to us, and it’s been real good to us over the years, and it would have definitely hurt our business.” The city didn’t build a park.

But what was a vacant lot behind Sanders’ business in 2012 is now home to a new Fresh Market grocery store, a Dick’s Sporting Goods store, a Bed, Bath and Beyond, and restaurants serving everything from Tex-Mex to burgers to pizza. Sanders says between ten and three, the traffic is brutal…

“If you’re brave, you try to cross Fifteenth Street.”

Back at Frank’s tavern in Joplin, Judy Petty remembers her run-ins with city hall. “A little bit hard to get along with. But, in the long run, it turned out okay,” she says. One bone of contention was where Petty could rebuild. Frank’s Tavern used to be right up against the street. “I was grandfathered in.” Other business waited, and they got to build closer to the road. Petty blames Joplin’s speedy route. “I’d have been better off if I waited six months before I built back. But, like everybody else, I wanted to get back up and running.”

So, Joplin built back fast and Tuscaloosa went slow. Ironically, five years after both tornadoes, neither city says it’s fully recovered and it could take five top ten years to finish the work. Ultimately, we asked Petty and Sanders, how they’re doing five years after the storms… “I’m happy with it. My husband would have been very pleased with it. It turned out good. Did good.” “Every month, with the exception of the first month that we were opened, was better than any month we had before the storm. We’re really doing well here now.”

And, that may say it all.

Pat Duggins is news director for Alabama Public Radio.
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