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2011 Tornadoes-- "Is it five years?"

We’re looking back on the tornadoes that hit the state five years ago on April 27, 2011. Twelve percent of Tuscaloosa was destroyed, over fifty people were killed, and countless lives were changed forever. The very first victim of the tornado APR met face to face was Steve Miller. Now, five years later, I checked in to see how Miller is doing…

“Is it  five years? Oh, my gosh…” Steve Miller’s come a long way since April 27, 2011. He lives in Tuscaloosa’s Hillcrest neighborhood. His new home has lots of windows and there’s plenty of art on the walls. You might not think anything was out of the ordinary. But, the first time APR visited here, things were a lot different.

“All we could hear were sirens. And then, at night, houses going up in flames around us. We could see that there were houses burning. And that was the only light, except for the distant light of the city. And it really felt like the end of the world."

He made even more disquieting observations five years ago.

“My neighbor two houses down, went into his backyard and found a young lady wrapped around one of his trees. She had passed away." Miller shared those moments with APR in 2011. “The sound was the loudest thing I ever, ever, heard. It was so loud, I couldn’t hear it anymore. It because so loud. And, mud and dirt and dust were smashing around and flying from all directions down there.” And what he lost wasn’t just inside the house… “Pine, and live oaks, and all the beautiful southern kind of trees, there were just devastated. We can see a mile away from here now, because there’s nothing between us and there.”

It took thirteen months to rebuild. APR stopped by again in 2012 to see how things were going…

“Finally, we have somewhere we have can have puppies, now with this new place. That noise in the background is Tango. She’s an African Gray Parrot. She was actually in the basement when the tornado hit. I was holding her as tightly as I could on my shoulder. She went silent for about two days after the storm hit.”

Like a lot of parrots, Tango imitates he hears. If Miller needs a reminder of what he went through over these last five years, she imitates the sound of a construction truck backing up. And the reminders don’t stop there…

“This little piece of marble here, which is probably an inch square, is the only thing that’s left now from the old kitchen floor. I keep this by the window here to remind me.”

Miller says despite losing his house and his beloved pecan trees, one friend stood in his backyard and made a comment that changed everything.

“This kind of reminds me of the beach. You have a big sky view. And, actually that shifted it totally for me. It went from everything missing to now, a wide sky view. And, it really changed it for me. Suddenly, I could think of it in a new way.”

However, even five years later, it’s not over for him…

“The sound of wind, even though the house is new, it blasts because there are no trees. It really gets on my nerves big time. And, we’ve had to get into the basement a couple of times since then, since this house was been new because of tornado warnings. And, it scares the pieces out of us, now…when that happens. We’re scared... yeah. So, I’m still in the process of processing this. It’s gotten a lot better, but I don’t think I’ll ever be the same.”

Still, Miller is planning a party for next Wednesday to remember that night five years ago.

Pat Duggins is news director for Alabama Public Radio.
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