Some things in Tuscaloosa are commonplace. The Alabama football team wins championships. Barbecue joints are plentiful. And tornadoes pop up at least two or three times a year.
The first two are celebrated. The third is something folks in the area just accept and is a part of normal life.
Nothing was normal about the afternoon of April 27, 2011, though. An EF-4 tornado with winds that reached nearly 200 mph ripped through the city and caused devastation unlike anything anyone in Tuscaloosa County had ever seen.
It was a scary day for most Tuscaloosa residents, and a nightmare for others who lost everything, including loved ones.
Two current University of Alabama student-athletes from Tuscaloosa were here 10 years ago. They were just kids back then, but the memories of that day are still vivid. Brian Robinson Jr. is a running back for the 2020 national champion football team while Kat Grill is a freshman for the Crimson Tide softball team. They recently opened up about their experience from 10 years ago.
'It was total destruction’
Brian Robinson was over at a friend’s house in the east Tuscaloosa area. The slight breeze and overcast were ideal conditions for some outside fun.
Then the clouds turned darker and the wind picked up.
It was time for Robinson to leave.
He jogged back to his grandmother’s house, hunkered down and waited.
“You could hear the winds and sirens around you,” Robinson said.
Just 10 minutes after he arrived at his grandmother’s house, the tornado hit. A few second after that – silence.
What happened next, Robinson will never forget.
“I didn’t think I’d open the door after that and see as much damage that I saw,” he said. “It was total destruction. I saw houses completely destroyed, trees and power lines were down and completely blocking the road.
“I can remember everything I had seen while jogging back to my grandma’s house and after 10 minutes all of it was gone.”
His grandmother’s house took minor damage, but it was still intact. Most everything else in a two-mile radius was gone. There was no way for Robinson and his family to leave the area by car. Roads were covered by heavy debris.
So, they walked. Robinson said he remembers walking up to the main road, where others had gathered in the moments afterward.
“They were just stunned by what had just happened,” Robinson said. “Store clerks were injured in their stores that were destroyed. It was just a tough time.”
It was also a tough time for some of Robinson’s friends, who were displaced after losing their homes. He helped out where he could – giving his friends sneakers, some shirts and other necessities. He and his family also donated items to FEMA.
“Watching those people have to start from the bottom after losing everything they had – it was good to see the people in my area and my city come together and try to help them,” Robinson said.
‘It was surreal’
Kat Grill was enjoying the day like a typical grade-school kid, taking full advantage of school being closed for the impending weather.
“I remember it was a really pretty day. Then all of a sudden it wasn’t,” Grill said.
The shift in weather forced Grill indoors with her parents. Several other of Grill’s family who lived in Tuscaloosa had packed some essentials – water, food, blankets - and made their way to Grill’s house, too.
“We were the only ones with a basement,” Grill said.
There were 12 people huddled in the basement watching meteorologist James Spann on TV for updates on the storm. By late afternoon, Spann instructed Tuscaloosa residents to take shelter after the tornado had been confirmed.
“Our power cut off right before he said it was coming in our direction,” Grill said. “I remember the sirens. There is one close to where I lived. It’s a distinct sound.”
The tornado changed its path, however, and Grill and her family were safe. The tornado did do damage the home of her aunt and uncle, and the home of one of her cousins.
“We were very thankful they were all at our house,” Grill said.
Grill said she remembered visiting the house of her aunt and uncle in the Arcadia subdivision in Alberta City following the storm. Trees littered the yard, stacked on top of one another. One tree crushed the roof of the house. There was major damage, but it was repairable.
Her cousin’s house in the Forest Lake area, much like most other houses there, was completely destroyed.
“It was surreal,” Grill said. “There were whole streets where nothing was left. All of 15th Street was basically gone. It was crazy.”
Reminders of the devastation and toll of the tornado continued for weeks and months afterward. Alberta Elementary School was leveled by the storm, and Grill said she remembers seeing some of those students roaming the halls of her school, Tuscaloosa Magnet School, soon after.
“At the magnet school we had a whole hallway they were able to use,” Grill said. “It was cool how they were able to get those kids back to different schools.”
While the destruction is a clear memory for Grill, the kindness and helping hand of the city is what she remembers most.
“I think it was really cool how the community, whether it was athletes or just citizens of Tuscaloosa, was helping,” she said. “There were so many donations. It was good to see the how the community worked to get everybody as close to normal as possible so quickly.”
Living her whole life in Tuscaloosa, Grill is all too familiar with the tornado protocols. She and everyone else has to brace for it every year. She gets a little stressed when the siren goes off but she doesn’t take it lightly, and she’s always grateful when the storm leaves little impact.
“When there is a warning or a watch it gives me a little anxiety because I know they can come out of nowhere,” she said. “To see the damage that was done 10 years ago makes me not ever take for granted when we do come out of a bad weather day like a couple of weeks ago without severe damage."
This is the fourth story in a weeklong series about the 10-year anniversary of the Tuscaloosa tornado.