It only took 10 minutes to turn the heart of Tuscaloosa, Ala. into a wasteland. Twisted. Unrecognizable. Destroyed.
The mile-wide F-4 tornado that roared through the city on the afternoon of April 27 boasted wind speeds exceeding 190 m.p.h., according to the National Weather Service. At least 65 people perished in its 80-mile-long path of destruction with more than 40 in Tuscaloosa alone. Hundreds were injured and the suddenly homeless were estimated in the thousands.
In the brief time it took the twister to tear its path of destruction through the city the lives of everyone associated with the town changed forever. For those present at the scene of the disaster, that realization came swiftly and was terrible when it arrived.
Tuscaloosa News reporter Wayne Grayson rode out the storm in the basement of the newspaper's downtown offices. After word came that the tornado passed he left to try and make his way home. Expecting to encounter a few downed trees and maybe some power lines on the ground, the 24-year-old Alabama graduate planned to take notes on the damage the paper's next day story. [Editor's note: The Tuscaloosa New's reporting of the disaster would later win the Pulitzer Prize.]
The first shock came when he reached the edge of the Forest Lake section of town and he realized there wasn't a single house without a tree on top of it. Crushed cars and debris were strewn everywhere. Driving became an exercise in futility with the wreckage in the street, so he parked his car and started walking eastward.
"There is a little hill that crests right past the lake and I got to the top of it and froze," he said. "It's a bit of a cliché to say you freeze and cannot move but that's exactly what happened. I looked straight out expecting to see the normal sight and there was nothing. No trees. No homes. Just the lake. And my first thought was everyone on that side of the lake is dead."
- May 2011: Bo Hicks stands in what remains of his former Tuscaloosa neighborhood.
- A Tuscaloosa home blasted by the April 27, 2011 tornado.
- The Sunshine Express prepares for the trip east in California.
- California volunteers set the stage for a successful trip.
- LA television news filming a feature on the tornado relief efforts.
- Terror is taking a 26-foot-long truck into LA rush hour traffic on a Friday afternoon.
- The Rose Bowl. The Sunshine Express' obligatory first stop.
- Another important stop, Claude Bell's dinosaurs in Cabazon, California.
- And, yes, I did have to stop and take this picture as well.
- I might have been listening to Hank Williams' "Lonesome Whistle." If not, pretend I was.
- Dallas, Texas. Time to get off the road and back to work.
- Simply organizing the amount of goods from North Texas donors in North Texas was an enormous task.
- The volunteers in Dallas did an amazing job unloading and reloading the truck.
- Late Spring in Ruston, Louisiana means peach Icees.
- Vicksburg, Mississippi. We were concerned the high water would force a long detour but, luckily, it didn't happen.
- Unloading in Tuscaloosa. The fact there were no clothes in this load was a huge relief.
- Loading up goods from First Wesleyan Baptist Church to take to Jasper.
- It was a long tough trip but easily one of the most rewarding ones of my life.
At my desk in Chandler, Ariz., I watched the disaster unfold through reports on the internet. Every update only fueled my fears of the worst. It was a sickly feeling of helplessness and horror at the sheer magnitude of the calamity being revealed through reports like Grayson's Twitter posts from the scene.
I posted a front-page item on Roll ‘Bama Roll. Almost instantly it became a jumbled resource for people trying to determine what — and how much — happened. A follow-up post the next day offered a bit more detail on the scale of the catastrophe and began linking to a legion of relief efforts. Roll 'Bama Roll would continue to provide information over the next several chaotic days.
It was clear that what had occurred was a disaster describable only in superlatives. April 27, 2011, is now recognized as the most destructive tornado day in United States history, surpassing the 1925 Tri-State outbreak. Its only counterpart may be the April 3, 1974, Super Outbreak that also produced at least three F5 tornadoes.
The twister that touched down in Tuscaloosa shortly after 5:10 p.m. continued northeast for more than 80 miles, slamming into the Birmingham suburb of Pleasant Grove. By the time it completed its run just past Fultondale it had become the deadliest tornado in the history of the state. It didn't travel alone.
Marching in deadly lockstep, other tornadoes struck smaller towns — Cullman, Hackleburg, Phil Campbell, Rainsville, Harvest — and left them in tatters. By mid-May, the death toll statewide was pegged at 238.
The first weekend after the storm, volunteers descended on the afflicted areas to help those who had lost everything and begin the cleanup. Far beyond the borders of the Yellowhammer State people were also clamoring to help. The problem for them was getting the assistance they could provide to where it was most needed.
I had an idea how to help with that.
My first call was to Alabama native son and lifelong Crimson Tide fan Todd Jones, the editor of Roll ‘Bama Roll. [Editor's note: Jones stepped down as editor of Roll 'Bama Roll in 2013] I proposed renting a truck in Los Angeles and driving it to Alabama, picking up donations along the way. A promising idea, he called it, provided it was economically feasible.
"Roll ‘Bama Roll has a unique platform and voice among Alabama fans," he later noted, "and this seemed to be a good way to take advantage of that and do something to help."
So we decided we would rent a 26-foot truck and shepherd it and its bounty more than 2,000 miles across the country to assist with the relief effort. The ambitious project would only be cost effective if we could fill the truck completely.
Our first step was securing funding. We wanted to find underwriting for the costs of the trip so that all contributions — monetary assistance, donated items and volunteer work — would be go toward the storm victims, not the trip itself. That's where the good folks at Well That's Cool came to the rescue.
When Roll ‘Bama Roll pitched the concept of the Sunshine Express (which I named since it would be crossing the typically sunny American southwest), Bo Hicks, a Well That's Cool founding member, jumped at the opportunity.
"The idea was so practical it made sense," said the 31-year-old Tuscaloosa native. "It was a way to do something that had a direct impact with results you could immediately see."
Hicks agreed that Well That's Cool would cover half of the costs and SB Nation, the network that owns Roll ‘Bama Roll, agreed to pay for the other half. That's when the wheels really began rolling.
The next problem was logistics, and it turned out a solution was already waiting. And it emerged from the most unlikely source.
Last November, after Alabama's loss to Auburn in the  Iron Bowl, a crackpot claiming to be a Crimson Tide fan poisoned the historic oak trees at Toomer's Corner in Auburn. In February, when the incident became public, a group of Alabama supporters created a Facebook page to raise funds to help save the 135-year-old trees.
"I knew Tuscaloosa was in real trouble then, and I knew it was going to be a long time before my city was the same again." -Taylor Nichols
Tide for Toomer's soon raised more than $50,000, which was donated to Auburn University's Toomer's Trees and Traditions Fund.
One of the men behind Tide for Toomer's, Taylor Nichols, was in his Tuscaloosa apartment when the tornado hit. The Alabama law student and his wife, Whitney, took shelter in their apartment's laundry room. Half a minute never lasted so long.
When it was over they were unhurt but almost immediately realized their luck. Looking up, Nichols first noticed a lot more light than he expected coming from the bedroom. The back wall of the apartment had been ripped away. His bed and much of the furniture that had been in the room were gone.
"It didn't truly hit me until I walked out my front door up on the second floor and looked out across 15th Street and all I saw was a wasteland as far as I could see," he said. "I knew Tuscaloosa was in real trouble then, and I knew it was going to be a long time before my city was the same again."
Two days later, as the couple moved their remaining belongings to his parents' home, the postal delivery woman drove up and gave him his accumulated mail. In it was a letter of thanks from Auburn University for his helping Toomer's Corner. It was dated the day of the storm.
But by then, his work was paying off in a way far greater than he had envisioned.
Once the decision was made to go, the first order of business for the Sunshine Express was to obtain two large Alabama logo door magnets and fuzzy dice emblazoned with the script "A" to adorn the truck. Longtime Roll ‘Bama Roll reader Briton Lavies sent them overnight to Arizona. All we needed at this point was the truck.
A few days later, May 5, I stepped off a plane in Burbank, Calif., and was met by a fellow Bama fan, Christian Minkler, who took me to the Penske office in downtown Los Angeles. The behemoth of a truck, all 26 feet of it, was ready and waiting and every bit as intimidating from behind the wheel as I expected.
I slapped the magnets on the canary-yellow doors and headed into the LA afternoon traffic. The Penske staffers took to the streets en masse to applaud us as we rode away.
Alabama alumna Ashli Wolf watched the tornado descend on Tuscaloosa on television from her home in the Los Angeles suburb of Woodland Hills. That so many places from the best moments of her life were wiped out of existence made the tragedy difficult to bear.
"It was a very personal blow," said the 35-year-old mother of two. "The neighborhoods the tornado hit, my friends live there. The Chuck E. Cheese it destroyed, my children held parties there."
"I didn't expect it to get as big as it did, as fast as it did but I never had time to really think about it because there was such a sense of urgency to get something done." -Lisa Michitti Cross
So she got busy trying to help. As UCLA's director of Bruin recruitment, she already knew how to use the internet to get things done. She created an index of donors in Southern California and hooked up with Toomer's for Tuscaloosa to act as the drop-off location for the region.
The first idea was to ship the items to Alabama by post. Then along came the Sunshine Express.
"When I got that call, I knew we could go bigger," she said. "Before we knew we would have a truck, the concern was, 'How will I get it [supplies, donated items] out there?' Once we had one, things really came together."
Wolf targeted the arrival of the Sunshine Express as the day to have all the goods ready to move. When the truck drove up, cardboard boxes were strewn across her front yard and folks were busy sorting items to put in them for delivery.
The donation drive had morphed into a cathartic get-together for Alabamans in the Los Angeles area.
"It made me feel like I was back home," Wolf said. It was rewarding, she said, "meeting people from back home who had gone through all that had happened alone because they live out here."
Loading the truck took longer than expected when a television news crew showed up to do a story. The back door was finally closed around midnight but was reopened a few hours later when the station sent another crew out for the morning show. The Sunshine Express finally began its eastward odyssey shortly after 8 a.m. on May 6.
Less than an hour later I took a short detour into Pasadena to pay proper gridiron respects at the Rose Bowl. The legendary venue has been good for Crimson Tide football over the past 85 years, and beginning the journey there seemed somehow fitting.
Battling Southern California's Friday-morning gridlock in a half-full behemoth of a truck was as delightful as I had expected. The stop-and-go creeping progress became easier as the urban landscape gave way to the dry, dusty panorama of the Inland Empire. Things only grew dryer and dustier as the truck plowed on. The windmills at Palm Springs signaled the end of the Coachella Valley and the start of the push through the emptiness of the Mojave Desert.
[Editor's note: Read the account of the Sunshine Express' first day from the Roll Bama Roll entry posted at the time.]
The Sunshine Express reached Phoenix in the late afternoon after traveling nearly 420 miles. The truck pulled into the warehouse in Mesa for the supplies collected by the Alabama Alumni Association's Phoenix chapter. It took an hour to load the items and truck was now three-quarters full.
My uncle, Jimmy Haynes, arrived from Oregon to accompany me to Tuscaloosa. The trip was too long to make alone, and the 58-year-old Georgia grad was a logical choice to ride shotgun. Jimmy's volunteer work assisting victims of Hurricane Katrina made him well suited to the task ahead and since he was family we wouldn't take things too personal when the stress of the drive took its toll. And it would.
After a good night's sleep, the Sunshine Express pulled out of Phoenix with the sunrise for the toughest leg of the journey; a marathon 16-hour, 770-mile haul to Big Spring, Texas. Arizona and New Mexico provided hours of interminable desert landscapes which were interrupted by a terrifying transit through El Paso, Texas. Winds kept grabbing the back of the truck and pushing it around the roadway as the traffic got more and more congested on the way into the city.
Beyond El Paso lay the vast stretches of West Texas. Dinner was ham sandwiches at a rest area outside of Van Horn as the sun set. Rather than savor the moment I had to handle a flurry of phone calls to make arrangements for the days ahead. We pushed on.
By the time we found our hotel at 1 a.m., both of us were exhausted and more than a little concerned about pulling this deal off. Luckily, things were going better than we could have hoped at the next stop in Dallas.
Lindsay Curtis Davis was in the hospital preparing for an operation the day of the storms. The 29-year-old single mother of three expected to spend her recuperation resting, but the disaster intervened. Raised in Pleasant Grove and a graduate of Auburn, she knew too many people back home to simply sit in front of a television and helplessly observe the havoc.
"I've got friends and family in Pleasant Grove, and it's pretty much gone," she said. "I tried to get in touch with my friends and couldn't and finally did, and they told me how they could only follow Facebook since power was out and all they had were their cell phones. Later I found out that the three-story house I grew up in is nothing but a pile of boards with an upside-down car on top of it."
It was only a matter of time before she found Toomer's for Tuscaloosa.
"They needed someone to organize all the requests in the Dallas area, and at around 2 a.m. I told them I'd do it. I didn't know what I was doing, but I planned on figuring it out after that."
Within a week she and a growing crew of volunteers had corralled enough donations from across the North Texas area to fill a tractor-trailer and send it to Alabama. When I called about the Sunshine Express, the timing couldn't have been better. Davis was already planning a weekend donation drive to chase the success of the first effort.
"We had thousands of people show up in the two days of the donation drive," she said. "At one point we had 54 cars waiting to make donations in a line that wrapped around the building."
The second day of the donation drive, May 8, the Sunshine Express pulled up to do its part by hauling the donations to Tuscaloosa. Plans had changed a bit, though. After conferring with Toomer's for Tuscaloosa's Cross in Alabama, the decision was made to remove all the used clothing we were carrying. Clothing donations had far outstripped the needs in Alabama and the priority of the run was bringing items most essential for people at the time the truck arrived.
(Davis found storage space for the clothing and planned a fund-raiser garage sale for later in the summer.)
The dozen or so volunteers on hand at the Raddison Hotel in Dallas were ecstatic to see the Sunshine Express arrive but then somewhat less enthusiastic to learn the whole truck had to be unloaded and then re-loaded in the sweltering North Texas heat. Still, the job needed to be done and they were determined to see it through.
After an eight-hour flurry of sorting, hauling and re-arranging, the truck was loaded up with nothing but the most necessary items — non-perishable food goods, camping essentials, diapers, toilet paper, feminine supplies and much much more. Just four feet of open space remained on the back of the truck. We posed for a group photo, locked it up and headed off for a celebratory beer.
Thankfully, the Raddison offered my uncle and I free accommodations, which afforded us an opportunity for solid sleep as well as some security for the truck overnight. Still, we were up before dawn and headed out to avoid the traffic on Dallas' infamous downtown snarl of highways, known locally as "The Mixmaster."
The itinerary called for a 400-mile push to Jackson, Miss., interrupted only by a final loading stop in Ruston, La.
No one who knows his full name ever doubts that Paul Bryant Crook is an Alabama fan. When he saw what happened to his hometown April 27, he had to do something.
"I wanted to find some way to help if I could," said the Alabama graduate, who's now a drama professor at Louisiana Tech University. "I started by asking my students to make donations, and it took off from there."
Crook's efforts were bolstered by Ruston native and Alabama alumna Amy Vessel, who organized a drive to collect school supplies for the storm victims. The Sunshine Express proved to be an unexpected opportunity to get the goods to Tuscaloosa.
The truck pulled into Ruston's Parks & Recreation facility before noon and we got busy topping off the load of donations. After an hour of re-shuffling things and squeezing stuff in every available space the Sunshine Express was packed all the way to the back door. In fact, there was concern for the safety of whoever reopened it.
Having attended high school in Ruston, I knew the region was renowned for its peach harvests and in the late spring that meant one thing — peach Icees. Vessel was kind enough to bring some from the service station owned by Karl Malone on the Farmerville Highway. After working in the heat of the back of the truck, I never had one that tasted better.
After lunch at that other Ruston landmark, Johnny's Pizza, Jimmy and I hopped back in the cab and headed down the road to Jackson, Miss. The Hampton Inn there put us up for free when we explained our mission. This gave us a good opportunity to rest and gather our emotions before entering Alabama.
No matter how many photos of a disaster you see, you're never ready for it firsthand. This was no exception. The first hint of the destruction in Alabama was a strong smell of pine sap as we drove along Interstate 10 after crossing the state line. Next came the massive trees with their tops torn off, then entire swaths of forest lying broken on the ground.
Tuscaloosa seemed fine at first, but there were hints, a ripped-off warehouse roof, fallen power poles, and then you were confronted with the unimpeded panorama of ruin.
Visually, it was appalling. Emotionally, it was crushing. Rationally, it made no sense. It was something you can never prepare yourself to see.
At 9:30 a.m. May 10, the Sunshine Express finished the final 190-mile leg of its odyssey at the donation warehouse in Tuscaloosa, where volunteers began unloading the cargo. There was little time to savor the moment. They were visibly relived to have a truck without used clothes and, instead, packed with needed essentials. For us the sense of accomplishment was muted by the now overpowering desire to do something to help out — move boxes, sort food stuffs, unload trucks. Put us to work.
More pressingly, we had two days remaining on the rental agreement and I wanted to line up somewhere to use the truck for the time it was paid for. I put my uncle in the care of Cross who came down to Tuscaloosa to meet us and she made sure he was on a plane back to Oregon that evening. I started eating through my phone plan's minutes for the month trying to find somewhere else to take the truck.
Eventually, I would take a load from the First Wesleyan Baptist Church in Tuscaloosa to the Salvation Army in Jasper. The load restocked the location that served victims of the storms across Walker County. After that I was pressed into service helping the Alabama Emergency Management Agency move goods around the county. I walked abandoned dogs at an emergency shelter the next morning and never felt better about my purpose in life.
With an unsettling mixture of relief and sadness, I turned in the truck at the Tuscaloosa Penske office on the morning of May 13. A week of my life had been spent driving the thing, and I was ready to put it behind me. But after talking to the people in Tuscaloosa and across Alabama, after seeing the bombed-out chaos that once was their world, I knew I hadn't done nearly as much as I wished I could.
In the end, the Sunshine Express was about more than carrying one truckload of goods 2,000 miles. There were hundreds, if not thousands, of people who loaded vehicles of all sizes after the storms and raced to Alabama to help those affected by the disaster. Each and every one of them has a story as remarkable and inspiring as the one I have just told and each and every one of them has earned our most sincere thanks.
The real goal of Roll ‘Bama Roll and Well That's Cool with the Sunshine Express was to be a catalyst for people outside the borders of the Yellowhammer State to come together and create ways to craft more ambitious assistance efforts. The supplies we were able to transport were important but the relationships forged to make the enterprise possible are far more so.
It seems to have succeeded. No less than three Facebook pages emerged to continue donation and fund raising; California for Alabama, AZhelpingSE Tornado Relief, and With Love from Texas. The last is the charitable organization that sprang from Lindsay Curtis Davis' efforts in Dallas.
Since she was on medical leave from her job in the mortgage industry, when her superiors learned of her relief work they let her go. Instead of stewing over the setback, Davis saw it as an opportunity. With Love from Texas, which is awaiting nonprofit certification, is now a full-time disaster relief organization with big plans.
"We want to keep helping the people in Alabama. More of our efforts will be focused on fund-raisers over the next few months," Davis said. "We're also looking at helping people affected by disasters in the future; using the lessons we've learned over the past few weeks."
Ashli Wolf didn't slow down when The Sunshine Express drove off from her California home either. Within a week her group, California for Alabama, had redoubled their donation efforts and collected enough supplies to fill a pair of 28-foot semi trailers (donated by Conway Trucking) which they promptly sent east.
"After the Sunshine Express we knew we could go bigger. The limitations were now gone," she said. "We changed our focus to trying to collect larger items that we have an abundance of out here but they don't in Alabama right now like furniture and household appliances."
Wolf said a fourth truck later in the summer is possible and that other fundraising efforts are being planned as well.
For us at Roll ‘Bama Roll, the Sunshine Express was a way for so many people who helped to see how their efforts paid off. Outside of "Thank you," the most common thing we heard along the way was, "I wish I could do more."
Fact is, doing something, no matter how small, makes a difference. It delivers a real outcome that touches the lives of those who have been affected by the storms in a positive way. Few of us can perform a great act — and certainly this one truckload of goods pales next to the heroic efforts of others — but all of us can commit the countless little acts of insight and strength, of kindness and clout. The weight of these will eventually matter enormously.
In the end, these actions will be the force that overwhelms the power of the storm and pave the way to resurrect the shattered sections of Alabama caught in the bull's-eye of nature's fury that cruelest of April afternoons.