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Writing The Storm and the Tide was a deeply personal experience

We have stayed in frequent contact, talking and texting. We will see each other this week. Ashley Mims, the mother of Loryn Brown, is no longer an interview subject or a character in a book; she’s as connected to me as my own family members.

It was a little over a year ago that Ashley led me on a heartrending tour through the darkest corridors of her memory. Sitting in a hotel room in Montgomery, Ala., not far from her home in tiny Wetumpka, we talked for hours about her beautiful daughter and the tornado that took her life. She was so courageously honest and forthcoming -- as were all of the main characters in The Storm and the Tide -- that it was difficult to stay composed as I took notes. Then, as I wrote the manuscript, I constantly went back to Ashley, asking her to clarify details and amplify different events, some of our conversations lasting as long as three hours.

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Here’s one thing I’ve learned about the storm that shook the South on April 27, 2011:  It still swirls today, even inside of me. A thunderclap rattled me three weeks ago after I sent Ashley the following text: “The book is being excerpted in SI. Loryn is the focus.” 

I was jogging through the streets of my Birmingham neighborhood when I received her reply. Ashley’s words caused me stop, because they literally took my breath away: “Loryn always wanted to be in SI.”

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This is my sixth book, and I can’t imagine I’ll ever write another one that is as freighted with as much raw emotion as The Storm and the Tide. When I was reporting the original magazine cover story two weeks after the tornado in the spring of 2011, I had a suspicion that I was about to produce a piece that had the potential to touch a lot of people. But then the magazine was published and I was overwhelmed by the response.

I heard from readers as far away as Japan (who told me they could relate to the people of Tuscaloosa because of the recent tsunami that had hit their country), Germany, Brazil and Canada. Alabama senator Jeff Sessions sent me a note of thanks, as did Nick Saban. More than once I was at a restaurant in Birmingham and, seconds after being introduced to someone as the “SI guy” who penned the tornado story, I had a stranger sobbing on my shoulder.

At the time I was an adjunct professor at the University of Alabama (I’m now a member of the full-time faculty in the journalism department.) None of my students were injured, but today many of them -- more than three years later -- are still haunted by nightmares of black twisters dropping from the skies like snakes. 

The tornado, I believe, had a lasting impact on Nick Saban. As I detail in the book, it softened his hard edges, rooted him in a community for the first time in his football life, and made it virtually inconceivable -- especially to his wife, Terry -- for him to retire anywhere other than Tuscaloosa. Would Saban have taken Texas' reported $100 million offer if the tornado had never blown a few blocks past his office on Bear Bryant Boulevard? We don’t know, but I do know that after the storm Saban hugged more grief-stricken folks over a 48-hour period than any person in the history of the state. This did something profound to him: It changed him.

T-Town is still rebuilding and the physical scars on the landscape won’t heal anytime soon. But the normal beats and rhythms of life have returned to Tuscaloosa. Football season is here and promise once again is in the August air.

Ashley will be closely watching the games. After the final whistle, win or lose, she’ll head to Loryn’s grave site. She’ll sit in front of her daughter’s tombstone. Then -- in a soft voice, a voice filled with love -- she’ll tell her baby girl all about the Crimson Tide.