On April 27, 2011 Several devastating storms tore across the South Eastern United States. One storm spawned a tornado that passed through Tuscaloosa, Alabama and The University of Alabama. It created a path straight through my apartment complex, and me. Here is a video of the tornado shortly before it reached us.
Earlier that day, Jessica was over at my 2nd floor apartment due to the bad weather. We both had received multiple text messages and calls about the bad weather headed our way. However, looking outside we were not alarmed. We saw overcast skies with semi-dark clouds. Comparing the lack of wind/hail/and rain to April 15th, when a tornado passed just south of Tuscaloosa, reassured us that it was not going to be bad. As the afternoon progressed we could tell that things were getting slightly worse. I pulled up a live stream of the weather online and watched the weather man (James Spann) diligently laying out the paths of other severe storm fronts and tornadoes occurring throughout the state of Alabama and surrounding. As Jessica pointed out on April 15th that you can always tell the severity of the weather by the status of James Spann's jacket. On is good, Off is bad.
We watched the tornado drop out of the clouds from the skycam in downtown Tuscaloosa. I walked outside and tried to look in that direction but my door was on the opposite side of the building. We watched the feed of the tornado as it begins tearing through Tuscaloosa. At one point the tower camera feed is lost and just minutes later we lose power. All of my networking equipment was on battery backup so I whipped out my netbook and attempted to pull up James again. That whole time, Jessica had been outside on the porch looking around and watching the clouds. I gave up with my netbook due to the cable internet being down (although it was more than likely "up"...). I turned on my weather radio and started throwing some things in a pack. Almost immediately Jessica spotted several people leaving their house and heading for their crawlspace door. She asked them if the tornado is headed for us and looking up at her one person yelled out "It is right behind you!".
Here is a Google Street View of the apartment before the tornado. My apartment was the top right unit. The house we went under is on the right side of the picture. The entrance to the crawlspace we went into is on the side facing my apartment. The tornado came from behind my apartment building and passed directly over my end unit and the house we were under before continuing out the right side of this picture.
I happen to have a picture from my apartment before I moved in. The picture was taken looking out of my living room window. You can see the house that we went under, the door that our neighbors walked out of and the top of the crawlspace door that we all went through. In the distance you can see components of the power substation.
I finished throwing things in my pack and we ran down the stairs and across the parking lot. At this point it was not raining and barely windy. We dove into the dugout crawlspace across the parking lot from my second floor apartment. As I entered, I turned around and looked up the swirling mass approaching us. Crawling through a small 2'x3' door I am pleasantly surprised with a couple of steps leading into a slightly dugout crawlspace and not a real 'get on your hands and knees" type. Glancing around I see that there is a cinder block extending from ground level up to the bottom of the floor joist and a cinder block pillar in the middle. I unconsciously determined that Jessica and I should get down against the right hand wall not realizing at the time why I felt inclined to move there. I later realized that by stopping to look at the tornado and analyzing the building construction of the house I subconsciously determined that 1) We should not be standing up but instead get down 2) The counter-clockwise spin of the tornado meant that the right hand wall was the safest. These two facts made a very big impact when looking at the post tornado pictures.
The tornado passed directly over us. the center of the red circle indicates our location and the darker path is the path of the tornado funnel on the ground.
The blue circle in the above picture shows the location of the video below. Taken from a shop less than 1000ft from where we sat.
With our backs against the wall there was little that we could do but ride it out. At some point I decided to pull out my phone and start video taping (see below). A growing roar of the wind, ears popping, darkness and of course,me spouting out random pieces of information.
I didn't close my eyes until I saw the pillar in front of me start to tilt and proceed to shoot up into the air with the house attached to it. As the house blew away from us, we had nothing between us and the raging tornado. However, that quickly changed as two vehicles were thrown in on top of us. Looking at the picture below, we were sitting right under the Jeep Cherokee. The triangle void it created as it slid over the wall and landed at our feet was just large enough for Jessica and I to sit. The rear axle struck my head on its descent to the ground. I opened my eyes a the impact but had to close them due to the sandblasting effect we were receiving. The entire ordeal was over in seconds.
Here is a picture taken from the roof of my FJ Cruiser just a few hours later. You can see the other wall of the crawlspace we sat in behind the Cherokee.
Here you can see the triangle that was created around us. We were sitting directly under the Jeep with our backs against the wall and knees against our chest. Note the bricks and debris peppering our hideout.
View from inside the pit looking out. That is the back of my FJ Cruiser.
My FJ after being pushed back ~50ft and pelted with debris.
The FJ was parked in the parking spaces near the top of the picture. To take this picture, I am standing in what used to be my apartment. Recognize the Stereo Cooler?
Another view from my apartment looking across the pit we were in at the remains of a power sub station.
Being an intrigued engineer, I could not help but exploring the damaged sub station. The massive components were either ripped from their concrete footings or just beat to death with debris. The only standing survivor was this massive transformer.
Over the next few hours both Jessica and I assisted in pulling people out from my apartment complex and giving them aid. Thankfully all were alive. We then had to walk several miles to the interstate to meet my parents for a ride home and a hot shower.
Here you can see the 62 tornadoes that went through Alabama, all on the same day.
Here are four more pictures courtesy of Jessica.
My apartment. Corner apartment on the second floor (Well at least it used to be). I am really glad we decided not to stay in there. Taken on the day of the tornado.
If we had stayed in my apartment then we may have opted to get in the shower-tub. I'm glad we did not...
It is amazing how fast you get dirty and how dirty you get. We were literally sandblasted. This is me standing in the back of my FJ Cruiser a few hours after the tornado had passed.
Many of the pictures seen above were taken from the vantage point on top of my FJ. If I would have had an after market front bumper with a hoop, it would have been drive able. The lack of protection on the front exposed the radiator to being hit with a power pole, crushing it into the engine block.
Over the course of the next few hours, Jessica and I helped to find and rescue our neighbors. I personally helped with getting 6 people to safety. Jessica stayed calm and helped personally connect with others, making sure they were okay and if they needed anything. It was very comforting to see everyone come together and help. None of us knew each other minutes before the event yet we all helped each other find shoes and phone loved ones. I later found this video with me in it. I used the high-lift jack I pulled out of my FJ to help lift walls and move larger items off of people.
Everyone came together and we were able to pull the couple out of their apartment.
After several hours, emergency crews were able to reach our area and help those in need. With it getting dark, I knew that Jessica and I needed to start walking so that we could meet my parents who were driving into town to meet us. The storm caused problems with phone and no one could call anyone else from within the area code. Luckily my brother lives in North Carolina so I was able to relay messages to my parents through him. As we left, we were taken back by the damage we saw. We knew that Tuscaloosa would never be the same. On our hike to meet my parent, we were stopped by two Crimson and White (School Newspaper) reporters that we briefly told our story to.
The next day as Jessica and I were on our way back to Tuscaloosa, I received a call from Piers Morgans booking agent. She asked if I was interested in doing an interview. Apparently the story we told to the two student reporters had received worldwide attention. I agreed to do the interview, not everyday that you get those kinds of opportunities. We drove to the location she provided and met the satellite truck. The location was on the opposite side of Tuscaloosa, giving us a look into the damage in this area. We provided CNN with a few pictures and I did the interview with Piers Morgan.
Here is a compilation of some of my videos and a few pictures. It does a fairly good job at re-counting the events of the day.
The raw power of the tornado was shown all around. This bus that ended up across the street was enough evidence for me.
After scouring through the remains of my apartment I walked across the street to see if there was anything I recognized laying out in the open. It was a hard process. You have to be able to recognize your property from any angle and mixed in with everyone else's things.
Comparing before and after pictures continue to amaze me. Considering that this change happened in mere seconds is astonishing. I understand even more why I was disoriented as we all climbed out from our hole. The two photos below are of the same view (line up the manhole covers and noticing the missing one as well).
Unfortunately Jessica and I were in the process of transporting some of the belongings that we found when Mr. President visited my apartment. As you can see, he is directly in front of my apartment and next to where the house used to be. Where he is standing, Jessica and I ran across to get to the dug out crawlspace.
She Said Yes! One year after the Tornado I proposed to Jessica on the spot we sat during the tornado and she said yes. It is hard to imagine that this grassy field now occupies the area that our apartment, and the house we were under, once stood.
I look back and think about the things that I threw in my pack moments before the tornado. I consider items that I wish I had brought with me and other items that I could have done with out. I still have my pack and after washing it several times it is now my dedicated emergency pack. Some might call it a Bug Out Bag (B.O.B) or Get Home Bag, or even a SHTF Bag. Whatever you call it, you need to have one tailored to your needs. I have built my pack around the dangers I might face in my area (South Eastern United States). It is ever evolving and I enjoy tweaking it from time to time. There is no one-size-fits-all emergency bag and please take that into consideration. Do not include any tools that you do not know how to use.
You can see me wearing my backpack here. I was wearing it during the tornado and most of the time afterwards. All of the items in it either helped me or someone else after the tornado.
You can use just about any bag. Mine happened to be an old camping bag. This is what it looks like from the outside. I try to leave the outside pockets and loops available to help with attaching unexpected items last minute.
Even though I am in the SE United States, it does get cold. I keep a medium weight long sleeve shirt and a fleece blanket in zip-lock bags. They usually stay at the bottom of my pack.
From top left to bottom right: 1 liter of water, cheap sunglasses, rain jacket, pack towel, 5'x7' tarp, and a Gerber machete/saw. I keep the liter of water inside of the pack. I can always store more in the pockets on the outside if needed. I can use the rain jacket with the long sleeve shirt to block the wind and stay warm. I can also wrap myself with the fleece blanket and then put on the rain jacket. The machete is shorter than most but fits inside of the pack and works very well. Not shown is a Katadyn water bottle with built in filter.
From top left to bottom right: emergency radio + flashlight + usb charger, binoculars, swiss army knife, zip ties, 3 D-Cell Maglite with LED, headphones, AA battery pack for ham radio, Motorola 36 mile walkie talkies, mini usb cord, Wouxon VHF/UHF ham radio, 100' paracord. I really like this weather radio. It has has a rechargeable battery that can be charged with the crank, solar panel, or mini usb port. It also takes AAA batteries as a backup power source. It has a flashlight, AM/FM and weather radios, headphone jack and a USB out to charge other devices. The walkie talkies have internal rechargeable batteries that can be charged through their micro usb ports and each offer a built in flashlight and weather radio. The micro usb cord can charge both walkie talkies and the weather radio.
The weather radio and headphones fit perfectly in this water bottle koozie. The pack on the right is my survival kit. On the outside of the kit I keep a pair of wire cutters and a knife. I added the wire cutters after the tornado. It was easier to break through sheet rock and 2x4's than it was to try and break simple house wire.
The contents of the kit include the following from top left to bottom right: Survival Blanket, Mirror, "Blast Match" fire starter, tongue depressor, zip ties, multi tool knife, wire cutters from outside of kit, Petzl e+LITE, pill holder and can opener, Fire logs in a zip lock bag, bicycle tire (fire starter), band aids, bandages and clean wipes, medical tape, orange paracord, duck tape and rubber band, compass, knife sharpener, composite fire starter, knife from outside of kit.
This pack usually stays in my car. I consider it enough to get myself home from where ever I may be. Or if I am home, it is enough to safely get me to someone that I know.
In this interview Mr. President is standing between my apartment and my FJ Cruiser. The house we were under used to be right behind where the FJ is now. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-13244407
Another interview that includes Jessica next to my apartment. http://abcnews.go.com/GMA/video/alabama-deadliest-tornado-outbreak-depression-violent-storms-sweep-through-south-us-13497636
Between the two of us, Jessica and I were shown on CNN's Piers Morgan Tonight, Good Morning America, Discovery Channel's "Super Outbreak 2011", and The Weather Channel's "Tornado 360".