Imagine driving into a small town within the Deep South. You’re surrounded by lush forest full of pine and oak, passing by some rustic auto repair shops and quaint one-story homes. You continue farther into town and notice there seems to be a clearing up ahead. Suddenly, you look up at those big trees around you and notice they have been snapped off and splintered at the top, twisted like a broken match stick. You look around in shock and awe as you drive another 100 yards and see what looks like prairie land all around you, though you know it shouldn’t be there. Everywhere around, you see damage that is unimaginable and completely disheartening. Concrete slabs that used to support homes, driveways leading to empty lots, and even a brick front stoop that leads to nothing. As you continue to drive, the width of this barren wasteland stretches for just under a mile. You get out of your car and look in all directions, and can clearly make out where the destruction came from and which way it went. You stand there and think about how crazy the world really is sometimes.
That sums up the trip I took to a place called Pleasant Grove in the suburbs of Birmingham, Alabama. The town was struck by an EF-4 tornado in the April 27-28 tornado outbreak with winds estimated around 190 mph. This was a long track tornado which began just north of a town called Union. It was on the ground continuously for 80 miles, moving through the city of Tuscaloosa and smaller towns before lifting a few miles north of Birmingham. As one of the deadliest tornadoes of the day, it took 64 lives, including 10 in Pleasant Grove, and injured 1500 more. At one point, the tornado was 2600 yards or 1.5 miles wide. This occurred as the storm crossed I-65 just to the north of Birmingham.
To get a sense of the State of Alabama, there is thick forest everywhere you look, which limits visibility to the sky. Much of the trees are either very tall pine or oak. Birmingham also features a fair amount of hills and valleys as it is situated at the southern end of the Appalachians. About 20 minutes west of the city sits Pleasant Grove, with rolling hills and a small-town feel to it.
Now just over six months later, there are some signs of rebuilding but it appeared the vast number of the homes, or empty lots, have been abandoned or untouched since the storm. This brings about a stark reality that the people of Pleasant Grove, and other communities in the south affected by those storms, still need a massive amount of help. Some houses still stand with phone numbers and names of insurance companies, while others still stand covered by bright blue tarps even with people are living inside.
I took a number of pictures of the town showing the devastation, but after looking at Google Maps, I realized some areas in the same community were hit far worse. The town of Concord to the southwest of Pleasant Grove was hit tremendously hard, as was Pratt City to the northeast. Both towns unfortunately reported fatalities.
It’s now that I want to try to get into more about what happened, what is being researched to save more lives in the future, and what can we do here in the D.C. area to prevent a catastrophe of this magnitude from happening in our own backyard. This is the first installment in a series of blogs that I will write about this event throughout the week. Please email me (firstname.lastname@example.org) with any questions and comments and be sure to start a comment string below. Your thoughts on this matter are important to me and my colleagues, and are greatly appreciated.