Twitter was the one thing that didn't go out on me after the storm: I was able to connect immediately afterward to let everyone know that I was alright, that I spent that early afternoon underneath a mattress in my hallway waiting for the worst.
Twitter was how I found out the severity of everything hours after being stranded in the darkness: the first couple of photos of the corner of McFarland and 15th Street, the list of buildings that were leveled or partially damaged. I drove to the Chevron on 69 to buy ice, beer and potato chips -- the three things that one assumes that you need in a disaster, not knowing yet the fullness of everything that occurred. The whole town was dark with the exception of a few candles -- there was a rumor that another storm was headed our way; that the tornadoes were not done with us yet. After that paranoia went away, everything shifted from "what are we going to do?" to "what are we going to do?"
The day after the tornado, my roommate Barry and I drove around to the top of the hill on 15th Street where we saw the wreckage for the first time -- just a wall of sheetrock and trees. We weren't allowed in there, so instead we drove into West End, to a gas station that was already lined up around the block with students gassing their cars up to head home, since classes were canceled and the university wanted as many folks gone from Tuscaloosa as possible. I spent most of the day on the phone trying to find people & let them know everyone was alright -- I had 3G service on my phone (somehow!) and was able to charge my phone using my car battery, which was extremely helpful as the English Department was trying to get in touch with all of our students, many of whom were unaccounted for.
In the midst of all of the chaos, I really wanted to find a place to watch the NFL Draft: to get back some semblance of normalcy, to see where Julio & Mark and all of our boys would wind up, to have something "normal" to hold onto.
All of the cable was out in Tuscaloosa (and would be for a week,) but Wilhagan's had DirecTV and thus, the draft: it was the first time seeing the world respond -- how we were a news ticker item, how there was footage and reporting and speculation happening less than a mile away, but we couldn't see it for ourselves.
On Twitter, eccentric billionaire Jim Irsay, owner of the Colts, would often have these twitter contests: he'd ask a trivia question and folks would respond for various prizes. For the draft, he wanted to know who the last pick of the first round would be. Barry said 'Well, the Packers will probably take an offensive tackle.' I sent a quick message @jimirsay with 'Derrick Sherrod' and thought nothing of it -- we went home and ate Doritos in the dark by phone light.
The next morning, I wake up to a direct message from Jim Irsay telling me to call Abby at the Indianapolis Colts offices: I had won $700 dollars and a case of Bud Light. When she asked for my address, I mentioned I was in Tuscaloosa, and we talked about everything that had happened: of chances, of luck, of god, or whatever and whichever.
The package arrived via FedEx a few days later: literally a case of Bud Light you can buy at Publix and seven one-hundred dollar bills.
I was never one to wield a chainsaw, so instead, I opened up my home to everyone after they had gone through a hard day of work. I used the money to cook as many pots of chili, red beans and rice, more cases of Bud Light as we could in order to feed our friends who had been spending their days working in the disaster zones: hauling trees and answering phones and providing comfort.
It was a long road ahead and is still often a long road, but in a time where every story was both incredibly strange and incredibly true, this is one I still can't quite believe.
Thanks to Brian Oliu for this contribution. He can be reached on Twitter at @beoliu.