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By Bob Barbanes - As many of you know, on Wednesday, April 27th a huge tornado buzz-sawed its way through the state of Alabama, leaving hundreds of people dead and thousands of people homeless.  It was not your typical tornado, in as much as once it touched down in the city of Tuscaloosa (in the western part of the state), it stayed stuck to the ground all the way northeast to the Georgia line and beyond.  The amount of destruction in its wake is astonishing.

The company I work for has numerous mobile home dealerships throughout Alabama, and we have one in TornadoTuscaloosa.  It was thankfully untouched by the tornado.  The boss and I flew up on Friday, the day after the storm.  While he attended to business I took various people (mostly government officials) up to survey the damage.  Seeing it on the ground is one thing, but being up in a helicopter can give you a perspective like no other.

Most of the damage in Tuscaloosa began just south of the University of Alabama.  The tornado came perilously close to the large campus and associated hospitals.  It barely missed the famous Bryant-Denny stadium, home of the Crimson Tide.  It leveled shopping centers, factories and apartment buildings alike, indiscriminately as tornados do.  But the damage trail just never stopped.

From Tuscaloosa, you could easily sight up the path of the tornado, straight as a plumb line.  It looked like somebody had cleared a right-of-way with a huge bulldozer.  From news reports, we knew that the destruction went all the way to Birmingham, some 45 miles away.  That was hard to fathom.  Amazingly, this massive tornado never did lift.  It followed the contour of the land, even down into valleys.  (The damage continued well beyond Birmingham of course, but that stretch between Tuscaloosa and Birmingham was all we were concerned with at the time.)

I spent Friday, and then again much of the following week, flying the line.  In Birmingham I took more government officials up, as well as others who are going to be responsible for getting things back to normal.  To a man, they were all shocked at how much worse it looked from the air.  The cleanup is not going to be easy.  Or quick.

From a personal standpoint, it has been some really tough flying.  Not physically but emotionally.  You cannot fly over this and not be affected.  Its just mile after mile of destruction.  I’d look down and could clearly see people sifting through the rubble of what had once been their home.  Sometimes we’d see a home site that was just vacant - nothing at all there but a slab where a house used to be.  It was simply heartbreaking. 

TornadoWe’d circle over one particularly bad area and I’d think to myself, “Man, I hope everybody got out of that place before the tornado hit!”  But we know that many people did not; over 230 of them perished in Alabama alone. In a tornado like this, hiding in a bathtub or an interior room would not have saved you.  Not even in an apartment building.  The only way would be to get out of the path.  Fast.

The things we witnessed were not all bad.  In fact, it was heartening to see so many Red Cross tents quickly set up, and so many churches that had become shelters and central distribution areas for emergency supplies and food.  As we on the Gulf Coast experienced first-hand with 2004’s Hurricane Ivan, area churches have really stepped in to help the communities in Alabama.  And some of these churches we saw had tarps - the infamous “blue roofs” - themselves 

We could not believe the number of power company trucks.  They had come from all over the south.  Everywhere we looked, men were working hard to get the power lines back up and electricity flowing to those without it. 

The people of Alabama have tremendous spirit.  They’re strong, kind, and community-minded.  These qualities have suddenly become extra-important, and will continue to be as the state rebuilds.  The houses are easy.  The shattered lives are going to be tougher to repair.  Watching from 500 feet above, I got a bird’s eye view of the awesome challenge that lies ahead.

Tordnado

 

About the author:

Bob Barbanes has been flying airplanes for fun since 1973, and helicopters for money in various capacities since 1982. He currently lives in Pensacola, Florida.

 

If you would like to see more detailed photos of the damaged areas impacted by the tornados, please look at the Digital Edition of Rotorcraft Pro Magazine!

Link to Digital Magazine

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