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April 27, 2011: I will not say: do not weep; for not all tears are an evil

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Concord, Pell City, Reform, Birmingham, Pratt City, Cullman, Arab, Fultondale, Pisgah, Sawyerville, Piedmont, Talledega, Marshall. Tuscaloosa. Above all, Tuscaloosa.

On April 27th, 2011, from 4,281 miles away, I watched the heart of my hometown die.

And, with its death, so too would vanish 234 neighbors, relatives, and Alabamians -- devoured, disappeared, destroyed by a mindless, implacable horror from the sky.

"The Tuscaloosa-Birmingham EF4 tornado threw mobile homes 300 yards away, turned appliances into shrapnel, and made automobiles unrecognizable." - NWS, Jackson.

The meteorological scale of what we witnessed that day can scarcely be understated. Like a global war, the monstrosity that unfolded had to be introduced with newer, larger numbers to a benumbed nation. The week of April 26-28 devastated 13 states, claimed hundreds of lives, cost billions of dollars, and wrecked the psyche of a region.

Nowhere was hit harder than Alabama. The EF4 that laid waste to Tuscaloosa and parts of Birmingham had winds exceeding 190 miles an hour, was on the ground for 80.86 miles, and had a storm path over 300 miles long -- reaching well into Georgia.

At its apex, the storm was one and a half miles wide.

It painted everything in its path with a despairing pallet of broken limbs, broken buildings and broken bodies.

The scope of the loss is almost beyond our ability to comprehend.

The individual tornado paths from the April 25-28, 2011, Super Outbreak added up to an almost unfathomable 3,200 path miles, by far the greatest of any U.S. outbreak. This total path was over 600 miles longer than the April 3-4, 1974, Super Outbreak.

If one could place these tornado paths end to end, it would be roughly equal to the driving distance from Portland, Maine, to San Francisco.

In 2012, Engineering Analysis Incorporated released a study saying 939 square miles of Alabama land was disturbed by tornadoes in 2011, the greatest amount for any state, for any year dating to 1950.

This is 1.85 percent of the entire land area of the state, and is greater than the average size of an entire Alabama county (757 square miles).

As the debris - emotional and otherwise - was lifted from our heads, the task of helping others began. In ways large and small, from Honolulu to Northport, from Ohio to Pasadena, first responders to grassroots aid organizations, from SBNation to the White House, the state sounded a cry for help, and help did come.

And, even as the dead were buried and the missing laid to rest, Tuscaloosa shrugged off the enormity of what was survived and took pleasure in the small things that made the world more bearable: A text, a phone call, a Facebook post, a tweet, all with the most powerful two-word message imaginable... "I'm safe."

Other small gestures and things would eventually help us regain our equilibrium. But, Lord, were those nominal pleasures a powerful scream of rage and defiance at the caprice of a world that had tried to murder a city and failed: Tokens of well-wishes from strangers, bittersweet survivors gatherings, friendships forged among the wreckage, a Drive-By Truckers concert where "Tornadoes" left not an eye dry or a heart empty. And, of course, we had football.

These are those stories, the stories that tell of a larger Alabama community planting a stake at ground zero to fight back against the despondency that threatened to swallow us.

Even now, it is hard to type these words through the broken prism of my eyes that threaten to give way to open tears -- sadness, a city remade in ways good and bad, those that were lost, those that survived, those that fought like hell against the darkness, and above all pride.

"I will not say: do not weep; for not all tears are an evil," wrote J.R.R. Tolkein. And nor are the ones shed today, on this fifth anniversary, necessarily an evil.

But, among the sorrow and the sadness of this day, we give you a few tales of what drew us together, made us stronger, and hopefully will kept the evil ones at bay.

Roll Tide.