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After destruction, there's no place like home

Photo by Laura Williams

Photo by Laura Williams

Editor's Note: Herald Staff Writer Terry Lewis is a

native of Tuscaloosa, Ala. He returned to his hometown last week immediately after the tornado damage and provides this first-person account.

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- As I wandered around my tornado-ravaged hometown on Thursday and Friday, the two words I heard victims and near-victims most use to describe their situations were "Okay" and "gone."

I heard a lot of "gone."

The old familiar landmarks were gone.

Not mauled.

Not moved.

Not knocked over.

Gone.

That's what happens when a half-mile wide, F5 tornado cuts a swath across the middle of a city. Imagine a lawnmower plowing through high grass.

So far the confirmed death toll stands at 39 with more than 1,000 injured. But more than 450 people are still missing, meaning the final tally is sure to rise.

The path of the storm left an estimated 5,013 structures damaged and affected more than 13,000 people.

I grew up in the Forest Lake, 15th Street area -- two of the places hardest hit by the twister. On Friday I grabbed my camera and set out on a walking tour of those areas.

What greeted me was a surreal scene that reminded me more of a moonscape than familiar neighborhoods.

Houses leveled, crushed, twisted and scattered. Mounds of rubble, block by sickening block. Nothing was familiar; I had to stop several times to reorient myself because there were no landmarks.

They were gone.

As I walked I had an interesting encounter with Boozer Downs, a freelance photographer I ran into while walking through Forest Lake.

He told me he was shooting damage on the other side of the lake when a woman walked out of the house and approached him.

"Sometimes people get upset with you when you are taking pictures of their homes," Downs said, "but she invited me inside of her house to show me the damage. I spent a few minutes taking shots inside and as I was leaving she said, 'can I ask a favor of you?'"

Downs nodded and the woman said, "Will you hug me?"

He said he embraced the woman, who let out a long sob as her body shuddered. Then she broke away, said "thank you" and walked back into her shattered home.

A few torturous blocks away I was talking to a man who was doing debris removal, and the top of a telephone pole snapped off and came down -- transformer, street light and all -- and landed with a loud thud just 15 feet from us.

That shook us both up.

As I walked through Wood Manor (or what was left of it) a volunteer handed me a bottle of Gatorade, which I drank gratefully.

When I finished, I put the top back on and looked around for a trash can. Then I realized that the entire neighborhood was just one enormous trash can.

So I just dropped the empty bottle where I stood. It blended in with the rubble.

Down what was left of the block, I watched an elderly man attempting to move the remnants of his mangled patio cover 10 feet to the back of his fenceline.

He was in his late 70s and was wearing a pair of woman's gardening gloves. He was trying to do the job alone, so I put my camera down and climbed over the fence to help him.

We were actually just moving trash from one spot to another, where it will have to be moved again. But it seemed to me that he thought he needed to be doing something, even if it wasn't really that productive.

I'm no psychologist, but I'm certain there will be hundreds of people who will be treated later for Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome. These folks are shocked and stunned into disbelief.

Then there is this story.

A friend who is a nurse was working at Druid City Hospital Wednesday evening. She posted this on Facebook:

"Three children under 6 by themselves in the ER. All bloody and dazed," she wrote. "Two of us got blankets for them and the little one whispered 'my momma's dead.' I said, 'well maybe not, was she with you?'

"He said 'yes, she was with us in our house and she blew away with our house.'"

My hometown is wounded and damaged beyond belief. The damage will take years to repair. Some neighborhoods will not be rebuilt.

That's just the nature of these things.

But what will emerge in Tuscaloosa over the next few years will be bigger and better, I'm certain of that.

After all, there's still no place like home.