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May 4, 2011

HURT: City begins to rebound physically, spiritually

For the first time in six days, the weather Tuesday matched the mood and the landscape.

For a long stretch after last Wednesday's killer tornado slashed across Tuscaloosa, the weather was perfect, almost tauntingly so. This was a blessing, of course. It let rescue workers do their critical work without impediment. It gave families time to gather belongings, or put temporary bandages on their fractured homes. It allowed thousands without electrical power to at least sleep comfortably (although less so, as temperatures rose), if they could avoid the nightmares. Until Monday, many of the staging areas for relief supplies were desperate for sunscreen.

It wasn't necessary on Tuesday. The day was gray and the clouds were drizzling, creating an eerie, appropriate backdrop for neighborhoods where the few remaining trees have been stripped of their spring foliage. It was weather that suited somber feelings. Add in an appropriate soundtrack - Beethoven's "Funeral March," perhaps, or one of the later Nick Drake albums - and it would have been a perfect recipe for depression. As if any more ingredients were needed.

But Tuscaloosa doesn't have time for that. It has to pull itself together, physically and spiritually.

On a long walk from one part of the damaged city into another, it becomes apparent that the storm, in almost diabolical fashion, split the city apart - physically. No, the tornado was not truly evil, like some whirling Osama bin Laden. It was an event. But for something out of the natural world, it cut an unnatural straight line across the city, even across some neighborhoods. It has created a strange duality in other ways as well. Parts of Tuscaloosa have power and cable and, if you didn't know better, seem no different than they were a week ago. Yet a mile away you may find a curfew checkpoint, or a family waiting patiently for electricity to be restored, or a family wishing it had a house where power could be restored. And the distinction - from the untouched, to the affected, to the destroyed - seems to rest on a razor's edge.

A walk through Forest Lake illustrated the point perfectly. At the neighborhood's northwest corner, houses were standing and businesses - a hardware store, a pizza restaurant - were open. Walk two blocks and the familiar scenes associated with a storm - downed trees and broken windows - became visible. Two more blocks, and it was a scene from hell, the wreckage left by the vacuum at the tornado's core. But, in a few slightly uphill blocks more, it relented and, when you reached McFarland Boulevard in the area of Midtown - south of where the storm crossed that busy road, roughly at 12th Street, things were relatively normal again.

Still, it was a somber, soggy walk along a grim, divisive scar - except for the people encountered along the way. The conversations, unlike the day, were warm and pleasant.

One Tuscaloosa firefighter told what a long day last Wednesday had been, starting when he had to help victims of the early-morning storms in Coaling, not in his official role but simply as a neighbor. Then, he humbly deflected thanks for the role that the local police and firefighters had played in the night's dramatic events.

"The people who really deserve the pat on the back are the ones who came out of these houses" - and he waved an arm towards some of the ruined relics along the street - "and helped their neighbors before we could even get in here. There are a lot of those stories, and they haven't been told yet."

That warmed the walk back to the car, even as the rain fell and the small lake itself, epicenter of a shattered neighborhood, came into view. The lake's resident flock of ducks was smaller, but they were swimming around, perhaps the only living things in town actually enjoying the weather.

They weren't the only ones out, though. One woman, her house not two blocks from the lake, was in her front yard, shovel in hand - a familiar scene in Tuscaloosa this week. But she wasn't pushing a pile of debris, or clearing a path through the rubble.

She was planting a tree.

"I just thought I'd start a little life in the middle of this," she said.
Tuesday's rain was nurturing that life - not just chilling rescue workers or dampening spirits. It was good to be reminded of that, and of the things - not everything, not every life - but so many that can be replaced, and rejoined.


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