HUEYTOWN/CONCORD, Ala. -- Sunday, 4:15pm (5:15pm in Ft Myers)
These people of Alabama have been through hell. That is about the easiest way I can sum it up. As I drove into Hueytown/Concord today. As I looked around in shock and horror, there was nothing.
In order to get to some of the hardest hit areas, people are being required to show ID. The National Guard is here and teaming up with the local police and sheriff deputies to keep things in check. To keep looters out and to keep those that don't live there out. Looting has been talked about more on the radio today as I drive around. One DJ said "If you're here to loot, leave. What is the matter with you? You have no place here."
As I parked and grabbed my gear, I looked around and didn't even know where to begin. As I walked the steets, I saw people walking and picking up whatever they could find. A found a woman who had her extended family inside a safe room and rode out the storm. Eight of them inside a room the size of a bathroom. That room was the only thing standing when the storm was over.
I found another family across the street and met a 17-year-old high school student who was shy to talk on camera but showed me their safe room. The roof had collapsed around them and he was able to climb out and get his family to safety after the storm. He said he had three cats and three dogs. Only one of the dogs survived.
The stories here are of hope. The woman who had her extended family in the storm told me over and over that there are no victims here, just survivors. She said that in between picking up what was left of a house across the street from her family's home. She said she was picking up what she could and laying it on the side of the road so her neighbor would have something to come home to.
BESSMER, Ala. -- Sunday, 8:15 am (9:15 am Ft Myers)
A quick update before I lose Internet. Its so spotty because so many towers are down. I'm going to work and just keep saving every few minutes.
I was in Tuscaloosa yesterday and back in Birmingham today. Its been a crazy few days. Reporter friends of mine were right, they said they couldn't prepare me for what I was going to see.
Yesterday (Saturday) started out with meeting up with Betty, our local Red Cross Volunteer from Ft Myers. I met her at 8am at a Red Cross staging area in Hoover, Alabama. It was amazing to see the mass quanity of people dressed in the red and white vests, ready to jump and help. People from all over the country, stopping whatever they were doing after Wednesday's storms and making their way here.
Betty was paired up with two other women and they were told they were going to several different places. Keep in mind, you can't really plan for how this all works. They were told one place but then went to another. It was also a big hurry up and wait game. You've heard the bigger cities like Tuscaloosa and Birmingham mentioned on the news, but there are so many smaller cities but crews haven't been able to make it to them to see what the damage is like. That is where Betty comes in.
Volunteers are being sent out as we speak to find those smaller communities and see what the need is. Betty and her crew were sent to Albertville, Alabama in the northern part of the state. They were hit by the storms but the damage wasn't as severe if any.
As I started on the interstate to follow Betty on the two hour drive to the shelter, I decided to pull off as I got a phone call. I have a few very close friends I'm keeping in touch with this trip to help keep me in check and "decompress." Its extremely overwhelming to try and take this all in. I won't lie, I didn't know what to expect but I think I'd be safe to say it wasn't this.
After a short chat, I decided to break away from Betty. Not because I didn't want to share her story, I got a great interview with her at the Red Cross staging area, but because I wasn't sure just how much access I'd have to her once she reached her destination. She is a nurse. So following her into shelters isn't allowed by the media.
I decided to set my GPS for Tuscaloosa. Keep in mind I had no idea where I was going or what I was going to find but I was told by the people I've met in Birmingham, if I thought that was bad, Tuscaloosa is even worse.
Driving along I-20, I scanned the radio. I've done that a lot because I'm trying to learn the area and really get a grasp of what is going on. When I start to hear updates, I'll stop and listen to that station. It gives me an insight to the locals view of what is going on. People are calling crying, saying they can't find loved ones, their pets. Others call saying they want to help but dont know where to begin.
As I continued my drive, I started to see trees and bushes on the side of the road. All of a sudden I started seeing trees snapped in half. And then a clearing and then trees and back to normal greenery on the side of the road. I thought that was odd and then it clicked. That "path" was where the storm crossed I-20. Trees.. clearing.. trees. Unreal, totally unreal to see that. Because then as I looked to the left down the "path" is was just more trees down but only in the path. This was just miles outside Tuscaloosa.
I had set my GPS for the city center of Tuscaloosa. I figured it would be a safe bet. As I drove into town, the GPS continued to talk, telling me I only had a few miles to go to the center of town. I wasn't sure where the hard hit areas were but about the time I was trying to figure it out, I hit bumper to bumper traffic.
I've hit traffic like that quite a bit here. Its the people trying to get back to their homes or what is left of them. At that point, I rolled down my window to ask a family in a truck next to me where the hardest hit areas were. I explained I was a reporter from Florida and he said "Maam, see that tower, the only one still standing over there?" I said yes sir. He said "Just beyond that, you can't miss it." He paused and then said, "Its heartbreaking but I'm still blessed I have a home."
With that I thanked him and continued on my way. As soon as I hit that tower, total destruction. Traffic lights not working (or even flashing) and several police officers standing in the intersections directing traffic. Every way I looked, frames of signs but no signs. Cars on top of buildings, power crews trying to salvage power poles that were left (not many), people wander the streets so lost and confused and not knowing what to do.
Looking to both sides along the road, I noticed a Krispy Kreme doughnuts with people outside, a building in shambles and plastic signs saying "We'll Be Back" and people handing out doughnuts. I was immediately captured. As I made my way through traffic, by the time I got turned back around and back to that Krispy Kreme, the doughnuts were gone but the owner was there.
In comes Evan Smith. If you have ever spoken with a person from Alabama with a thick accent, that is how Evan spoke. Answering "Maam" to every question I asked and having such a humble and kind spirit and sense of humor among to destruction.
I explained I was a reporter from Ft Myers, Florida and with that Evan replied "Maam, my mama's family lives in Ft Myers." I said to him, I was hoping to find a Florida connection at least, but a southwest Florida connection among some of the hardest hit areas in Tuscaloosa, I was shocked.
I asked him if he wouldn't mind to do a quick interview but that turned into a 30 minute walk around with questions and answers and him showing me what was left of the Krispy Kreme shop he used to have. He explained that his six delivery trucks were scattered on both sides of the street his shop is on. Thrown like toys in the wind. As we walked the neighborhood behind his shop, he started to find things he hadn't seen yet, like a chocolate mixer in someone's front yard. Just down the street, one of those delivery trucks was sitting in someone's house.
After our interview, Evan and his family left and then came Aaron and Michele. A couple from just down the street in Tuscaloosa who came to snap photos and see what was left of their favorite hang out spot. It was from Aaron and Michele that I learned this was no ordinary Krispy Kreme. It was a local hang out for many in this one neighborhood because it was open late. After the big game on a Friday night, this store is where people came.
After I did a quick interview with Michele, she and her husband Aaron and I got to talking quite a bit. They explained that they still were blessed to still have a home because they only lived about two miles from what looks like a third world country now. So many people I've interviewed tell me time and time again how blessed they are. How they are thanking God for so much. Sparing their lives, keeping their families together.
Friday night when I visited a neighboorhood just 8 miles from the airport, I interviewed families that say this storm has brought them together and closer. It was on Friday night I got my first glimpse into what really happened here on Wednesday.