By: Eric SanInocencio
SEC Digital Network
Birmingham, Ala. -- April 27, 2011 will go down in history. To citizens in the Southeast, mainly Alabama, the day will go down in infamy. It will forever be remembered as the day when 23 tornadoes ripped through this state, decimating big cities and small towns while leaving destruction and devastation in its wake.
For me, April 27th was the scariest day of my life.
It began at 5:30 am, as my new alarm clock (my six-month old son) woke up my wife and me to start the morning routine. As I came to my senses, I couldn't believe what I was hearing. The whistling from the wind outside was so loud
. The sound was deafening, as if a freight train was trying to make its way across my front lawn. After a quick glance out the window, the visual scene wasn't much better. 100-year old oak trees nearby swayed violently in the wind, as branches spewed across the landscape, a dark ominous sky in the background.
I made the quick decision for my family to head to our storm shelter, unsure of what was happening in the world around me. We turned on the radio, hoping our local weathermen could give us some kind of grasp on the severity of the storms overhead. Little did we know, this frightening start of the day was only the beginning...
Two hours later, the sun was shining. Despite the trees that had fallen from the earlier storm, the roads were still open in Birmingham, and business continued like normal for many of us. I hadn't lost power at home in Hoover, so I fired up my laptop and began to work on a plan for the SEC's coverage of the upcoming NFL Draft.
This was going to be a showcase for the SEC, a historic event
, with the draft's top prospects coming from our
league. Watching ESPN that morning, every analyst was busy breaking down film on Cam Newton (Auburn), or debating Patrick Peterson's (LSU) cover skills. They wondered how good Mark Ingram (Alabama) could be at the next level, or how quickly AJ Green (Georgia) could become a force in the NFL. It was the SEC show.
By that time, it was getting close to noon. The local mid-day broadcasts were being interrupted with breaking news from the morning storms. Horrific pictures from nearby Cullman (one hour north of Birmingham) dotted the screen, with their main street no longer standing after a tornado touched down there a few hours prior.
While they displayed the damage, they warned of more storms to come. A vicious line of cells were headed our way, with band after band of severe weather set to hit the state for the next few hours. The SEC office closed its doors, sending everyone home early so they could hunker down at home to ride out what was to come.
At this point, I knew bad weather is coming, but it was impossible to know just how bad it could be. Just the week before, we had tons of severe thunderstorms come through the Southeast, raising the awareness of tornado activity. Nothing serious occurred, thankfully, but just one week later we were headed for another round with Mother Nature. This time we weren't ready.
You know what happened for the next seven hours
, and this
. It was unreal
. Almost a week later, I still cannot believe what happened.
From a personal perspective, I felt like I was trapped in a seven-hour long horror movie. Just when you thought it might be over, another funnel cloud was spotted on the radar. It was the most constant nightmare you could ever be a part of. I later told my mother than I've never been more afraid for a longer period of time than that. You couldn't exhale, because another tornado was coming.
This isn't the first natural disaster I've gone through. I made it through Hurricane Ivan
from a flimsy apartment in downtown Birmingham, and survived an F2 tornado in my hometown of Daleville (AL) from a trailer park with my parents
. When a hurricane is bearing down on you, you have a time frame to reference how long the worst part will last. A singular tornado is an even quicker event, with speeds so fast that if you do survive it passes quickly.
Not that day. From 1 pm to 8 pm, it never stopped. Tornado after tornado kept coming. One would pass through our area, and quickly there would be two more forming in the wake behind it. Power flickered on an off, and your heart stopped every time the weatherman told us to "head to our safe place".
I often make jokes about weatherman, since they usually seem overly excited when bad weather approaches. I understand that it is their job, and the chances to track severe storms this strong are very rare in their profession. However, that usual on screen exuberance turned to morbid fear on this day, as Birmingham's top weathermen continued to get word of the mile wide tornado ripping through Tuscaloosa.
One mile. 5,280 feet. Think about that. It takes the average person 10 minutes to run a mile. If you are driving 60 in your car, it would take a full minute to cover that distance. Today, a devastating funnel cloud was that wide, ripping through a corridor of the state with a force not seen in 50 years.
After it left Tuscaloosa in rubble, the tornado headed toward Birmingham. Along the way, it decimated parts of Bessmer, Pleasant Grove and Pratt City
. These communities had no chance, as the tornado destroyed everything in its path as it headed up I-20 and I-59 toward the Magic City. A local news affiliate caught the storm's path on video
, as it made its way across the buildings and offices I pass on the way to work every morning.
I was one of the lucky ones. Despite some trees and power lines down in my neighborhood, everyone's house was intact. There were no fatalities, and even as we attempted to comprehend what had just happened, we were fortunate to do so with a roof over our heads. That night I couldn't sleep, my mind in awe of the historic nature of what I had just survived, my heart heavy with the fear and pain for those who had lost everything.
The next day... was the NFL Draft.
That Thursday morning was a surreal scene. The weather outside was beautiful. It was bright, sunny and warm as I awoke. With the way it felt, you'd never know the devastation that took place just 24 hours prior. Then, you looked around, reminding you the day before wasn't a dream. I never made it to the office, instead spending the early hours of that day trying to figure out how friends in the storm's path were doing. I got many positive responses, although some tragic answers were mixed in as well. We were one of the few in the area with power, so the television was focused on the local news, hoping to catch a glimpse at what was left behind.
Meanwhile, over 900 miles away in New York City, several former SEC greats were preparing for the greatest day of their lives. Names like Nick Fairley (Auburn), Julio Jones (Alabama) and Marcell Dareus (Alabama) were awaiting a moment they had dreamt of since their childhood. Later that night, their names were going to be announced in front of millions, with their great ability and collegiate success culminating in being drafted by a team in the National Football League. They were surrounded by family and friends, counting down the hours before they could celebrate being a part of the nation's most popular sport. This was supposed to be their day.
For six of those SEC players, Thursday's celebration had already been altered. Those six played for schools in the state of Alabama, now a nation of residents beginning the recovery process from one of the worst storms the region had ever seen. For Newton, Dareus, Fairley, James Carpenter (Alabama), Jones and Ingram, the excitement was muted by what their former classmates were dealing with at home. Tuscaloosa, the home of the University of Alabama, was a shell of its former shelf, with Mayor Walter Maddox claiming the town had been "destroyed" by the storms. How do you celebrate achieving a dream while those who cheered you along the way are in peril?
To add support for both the state and the players about to enter the national spotlight, Alabama head coach Nick Saban and Auburn's Gene Chizik headed to Radio City Music Hall. Their presence was to show solidarity for Alabama's struggling population, along with standing as a bright light in the midst of the dark cloud hovering over the Southeast.
The night had gone from a celebration of the SEC's dominance to a small distraction for the devastation being faced by many in Alabama. Even NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell understood the importance of what took place, and began the evening with a heartfelt and classy moment to remember those hurting in the South
I was lucky enough to be able to watch this, with power restored in my home many hours before the event at Radio City Music Hall begun. Many weren't as fortunate, trapped in mountains of rubble or shifting through debris in attempts to reclaim some part of their life taken by the tornadoes. They had very little to hope for, except for the fact that state's top players were about the shine in front of the entire world.
Shine they did, as the SEC as a whole took over the first round of the NFL Draft. 10 players from the league were selected among the first 32, including five of the draft's first six picks. Auburn's Newton was the top overall selection by the Carolina Panthers, with Alabama's Dareus going third to Buffalo. Fan-favorite and former Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram capped off an emotional night, as he cried while talking about his father after New Orleans drafted the highly sought after running back with the 28th pick.
It was a historic night for the league and the state of Alabama, on the heels of the historic lows from the day prior. In the span of 48 hours, Alabama had gone from the crushing emotions of devastation to the comforting feeling of pride as their hometown talent cemented their status as the best in college football. Even if just for a few hours, the SEC's dominance in the NFL draft uplifted the spirits of many who were at the emotional bottom from a horrific day of storms. Just for an instant, college football was king again and all seemed normal.
Saban echoed those words, hoping his program and players could stand as source of support for those in Tuscaloosa hurting. "The work that people are doing is appreciated and vital at this time. As important as what is being done is, sometimes just the presence and support while helping someone serves as vital encouragement," said Saban. "Being a part of the University of Alabama team is helping people when they need it. It's not always about just being there on Saturday. A lot of people are doing everything they can to help others. What people are trying to do is very much appreciated and is really helping."
All in the span of 48 hours. 23 tornadoes, over 350 dead. 10 first round picks, six players from the state of Alabama taken in the first round of the NFL Draft. Staggering numbers on both counts. What a historic two days.