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Recovery Continues 2 Years After Deadly Tornado Outbreak

April 27, 2011

By The Montgomery Advertiser

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April 27--Theresa Forbes will graduate from the University of Alabama School of Law next week, and but her thoughts will be fixed on what happened at 5:13 p.m. April 27, 2011.

That's when Tuscaloosa was struck by a powerful EF-4 tornado with winds of up to 190 mph -- a monster storm during a devastating outbreak.

Two years later, the numbers are staggering. That day the state was hit by 64 tornadoes, resulting in 254 deaths, 23,533 homes damaged or destroyed, and more than $1.5 billion in property damage.

Forbes, 26, from Prattville was studying for exams that day in the clubhouse of University Downs Apartments, where she lived. The apartment complex was in the path of the storm.

"The exam was going to be on constitutional law, and I was studying with friends," Forbes said. "The clubhouse had big glass windows on one wall, and we saw it coming. I lived on the second floor and didn't want to run to my apartment.

"Some of the people drove to the law school, which is a substantial building just around the corner. I didn't want to get caught in traffic, so a group of us went to a small closet in the clubhouse. We had to move a bunch of boxes, but we got in just before the tornado passed."

When it was over, she couldn't believe what she saw.

"There was just destruction everywhere," she said. "We were very lucky. My car was still in the parking lot, but every window was smashed. We were very lucky."

Tuscaloosa was one of the hardest hit communities during the tornado outbreak. The Tuscaloosa-Birmingham tornado stayed on the ground for 80 miles and was one-and-a-half miles wide at its widest point, NWS data shows. The storm resulted in 1,500 injuries and 65 fatalities.

Tuscaloosa suffered the highest number of fatalities that day, at 52.

In the days and weeks after the storm, Forbes continued her studies and worked to help in the recovery. She volunteered with Habitat for Humanity to build houses in the nearby community of Holt.

Now that graduation approaches, she's looking for a job and studying for the Alabama Bar Exam, which is in February.

"I know when I walk on May 4, those memories will be there," she said. "I will never forget what happened that day and the days after. We were very lucky."

The outlook is now to the future, said Tuscaloosa Mayor Walter Maddox, who saw 12 percent of his city destroyed that day in about 15 horrifying minutes.

"I think as the anniversary approaches, thoughts will be more on what is happening than what happened," he said during a phone interview earlier this week. "April 27 will always be there, it will be in our DNA, that pain and grief.

"But we honor those who lost their lives by moving forward. Tuscaloosa is rebuilding. I'm sure on Saturday when 5:13 p.m. rolls around, all of us will be thinking back to where we were at that moment."

The recovery is making progress, he said.

"About 75 percent of the buildings that were destroyed have been rebuilt, are being rebuilt, or permits have been pulled for work to begin," Maddox said. "The significant portion of rebuilding will take another three years to complete, but we will be in recovery mode for years to come."

Statewide that recovery continues as well. Gov. Robert Bentley has received high marks for his response to the outbreak, which came about 100 days into his administration.

"Overall, Alabama is definitely ahead of the curve with the recovery process," said Bentley, who visited every community impacted by the storms in the weeks following the outbreak. "That is due to the hard work of local communities, various state agencies, volunteer groups and the partnership of our federal agencies. In March, we announced nearly $120 million in additional funding to help Alabama communities in the ongoing recovery effort."

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has obligated more than $205 million to cover projects under public assistance, which includes projects such as repairing roads, bridges infrastructure and emergency work, state EMA figures show.

The rebuilding effort is the largest the state has seen since the Civil War, Jeff Bates, lecturer of economics at Auburn Montgomery, said right after the outbreak.

In terms of fatalities, the April 27 outbreak comes in as the second-worst natural disaster in state history, NWS data shows.

The top spot goes to the Deep South Outbreak of March 21-22, 1932, when at least 36 tornadoes rampaged across several states, from Mississippi to South Carolina. In Alabama, 270 people died during that outbreak, NWS figures show.

Alabama has turned the corner in the recovery, but hard work remains, Bentley said.

"There are still several communities suffering from the long-term effects of the 2011 storms, but we are working with them to help rebuild," he said. "Each community is recovering at different paces because each community is unique.

"It would be impossible to give a definite time line on how long the recovery will take in every community. What I can say is this: The recovery effort will continue, and these communities will be restored better than before."

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(c)2013 the Montgomery Advertiser (Montgomery, Ala.)

Copyright Montgomery Advertiser (AL) 2013

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Story Image: A recap of the Deep South's April 27, 2011, Tornado Outbreak in the eyes of NOAA. (NWS/NOAA)

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