After four tornadoes tore through Lee County, Alabama, on March 3, images of their wrath were soon displayed across television news reports, newspapers and articles online.
Many homes were destroyed, cars mangled. Twenty-three people, ages 6 to 89, were killed, including four children, according to the Lee County Coroner. The recent storm is among the deadliest in Alabama history - the deadliest day for tornadoes since the April 27, 2011, super outbreak when 240 died.
As I read the news online Monday morning, I couldn’t help but stare at a photo of the gash that a mile-wide path that an EF-4 tornado tore into the landscape as it passed. What struck me most was the familiarity of it all. The pine trees snapped in half, the fallen trunks all lain in the same direction, pointing to where the storm had once been. The scraps of metal wrapped around the partial tree trunks that remain; roofless homes with broken windows, dirt and debris spattered against the walls that still stood; the spray-painted “X” on the homes and cars, notifying that the structure had been checked for survivors and the dead.
For people outside the South, it’s another weather tragedy, similar to how the California wildfires or this winter’s cruel blizzards might be for many of us - sad, but strange.
But for Southerners, especially people in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, it’s different. While the mile-wide gash in our own landscape left by the April 27, 2011, EF-4 tornado has started to dissipate eight years later, and vacant lots are starting to become less common, it’s the sound of tornado sirens and the sight of storms like the one in Lee County that rip off the Band-Aid for many tornado survivors. Eight years is not enough; the wound is still too fresh.
Last week’s mile-wide tornado and the destruction it left in its wake is all too familiar.
When I saw images of the twisted metal debris and broken trees, I didn’t see Beauregard, Alabama. I saw Forest Lake in 2011, an area less than a mile from my own neighborhood. When pictures of homes scraped off their foundations were broadcast on the news, I didn’t see Lee County. I saw a home in the Holt community, a place where I once sat on its front steps while working on a news story after the tornado. The residents of the home had died, the steps were the only part of the home that remained. And as a Lee County resident being interviewed on TV described the smell of wet pine from inside her home when the tornado hit, I could instantly smell the pine, along with the sulfurous, nauseating hint of natural gas that permeated my neighborhood in the days after the April 27, 2011, tornado. I couldn’t help but remember climbing over the fallen trees trying to see if my own home still stood, and the guilt that came with it to realize that we made it out OK when so many others did not.
We know the time heals wounds. We’ve seen Tuscaloosa recover and grow. We know there is light at the end of the tunnel, that life - although not quite ever the same - really does move on.
But our hearts also pour out for the people of Lee County, Alabama, and other areas hit by last Sunday’s storms. Because we’ve been there. We know the sights, the sounds, the smells. We know the despair all too well.
And while we’ve lived it, we wish no one else had to. It’s our turn to help.
Lydia Seabol Avant writes The Mom Stop for The Tuscaloosa News in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.