After four months of bulldozing splintered homes and burying the dead from a tornado, Tuscaloosa is aching for a taste of life as it used to be. Around here, that means University of Alabama football and the hoopla that comes with it: Big crowds, tailgating and touchdowns.
“We’re ready to get our minds off the storm and back on football,” said Arthur Paige, a worker who rummaged through the wreckage of an apartment complex still awaiting demolition. “I can’t wait. Roll Tide, Roll!”
Alabama, ranked second in The Associated Press poll, takes on Kent State on Saturday. It is not expected to be a close game, but that doesn’t matter to residents who want to escape the stress of cleaning up and rebuilding after more than 10 percent of the city was wiped out.
“The fact that sometime during the second quarter we’re going to be lost in the game, thinking about what the future holds for the season, that’s going to be a great moment for all of us to enjoy,” said Mayor Walt Maddox, an Alabama alumnus.
It may not be that easy. Splintered trees, empty, weed-covered lots and blue tarps over roofs are still visible near 101,821-seat Bryant-Denny Stadium. The tornado just missed campus, killing six students. Spring graduation was delayed until August because the city couldn’t handle a flood of visitors.
Trees, utility poles and electrical wires crisscrossed city streets after a tornado with winds up to 170 mph left a path of destruction that cut through neighborhoods rich and poor. With 50 deaths eventually blamed on the twister in Tuscaloosa and more than 240 people killed statewide, it was hard to even think about football in those first days of digging out survivors, treating the injured and patrolling for looters in the hardest-hit areas.
More than 5,300 homes were badly damaged or destroyed in Tuscaloosa. Even the county’s emergency management headquarters was obliterated. While the university was spared, classes ended early and students left not knowing what this college town of 81,000 people would look like when they returned.
Today, the streets are clear of trees and other storm debris. Workers have replaced utility poles that were snapped by the wind. National Guard checkpoints and Humvees are gone, replaced by students walking to class along shady sidewalks near Denny Chimes and Gorgas Library.
Before kickoff, the university plans to honor police officers, firefighters and others who assisted in the earliest hours after the disaster. The Crimson Tide players will wear stickers on their helmets to remember tornado victims, and the marching band will honor the memory of victims with a special halftime performance.
“Our players are probably tired of practicing against one another and looking forward to the season, the competition, trying to create an identity for themselves, which is always the challenge for any team,” he said. “Also, for the sake of our community from the standpoint of giving people, from a spiritual standpoint, something else to think about, something else to be passionate about, something else to create hope about.”
The cleanup and rebuilding will go on through football season. More than 80 percent of the debris is gone and some 2,500 structures are being demolished. The mayor said the city expects to condemn still another 500 buildings.
Construction worker Larry Weems of adjoining Hale County probably won’t take time off for the Kent State game; he doesn’t pay attention to college football. But he’s been in town long enough doing tornado-related work to understand what a simple game means to people who lost everything to the tornado.
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