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A tornado strikes a photojournalist's hometown and it changes everything
Co-written with Samantha White-Kelton
Imagine you're a photojournalist whose hometown has just been devastated by a natural disaster. Suddenly, news photographers' lenses are pointed at you, your friends, and your neighbors as they deal with their and your personal loss. Read Mark Lent's account of the April tornado that ripped his hometown of Tuscaloosa apart, view his photos of the destruction, and read the lessons he learned as a photojournalist. With so many tornados hitting the American heartland this spring, this is a timely, relevant post...
As a native New Yorker, I was a little apprehensive about living my life in a sleepy southern town of 180,000 people, and approached my moving to Tuscaloosa with a great deal of apprehension. That day was 20 years ago this upcoming August 3rd. To say that I love Tuscaloosa would be a great disservice to this community that’s given me so very much over those past twenty years. I am fanatical about this wonderful little town and the people who live here.
I worked for the Tuscaloosa News, a newspaper that afforded me many opportunities that working for a company like the New York Times allows. I was paid well, had great benefits, and loved working as a photojournalist. I met the only woman I’ve ever thought enough of to marry here, and we have had three amazing children together. And even though we have recently divorced, she is close enough that I consider her a neighbor and will still help her if she ever needs it. She is an amazing person and I attribute much of that to her being raised in Tuscaloosa, because that’s how things are done in this sleepy, southern town.
The University of Alabama is also based here in Tuscaloosa, and while much of the attention typically revolves around the religion that we here in the south call football, the university is a top-notch institution for research, scholarship and people that I find so inspirational at every level. The University of Alabama has also been incredibly generous to me personally too- I’ll have gone from my undergraduate to my eventual goal of earning a PhD at Alabama on a fully funded scholarship. To date, I have paid nothing for my education. I am and will always be so incredibly grateful to this institution, and whenever asked to assist UA, I always do.
As a student, it’s difficult to work full-time and earn a graduate degree, so I have a part-time job driving a school bus. In Alabama, school bus drivers are considered full-time employees of the school system and are allowed full medical, dental and retirement benefits. This allows me to provide the insurance that my children need while giving me enough time to continue my studies during the day, an ideal situation for me.
I’ve driven my route for a year and a half now, and pick up high school students who live in the Alberta City area, along University Blvd., 15th street, Kicker Road and 13th Street sections of Tuscaloosa.
My route was the the hardest-hit area of the April 27th tornado.
These areas have some of the oldest houses in Tuscaloosa- many that are wood-built and 60-70 years old. It is a poor section of town, but I find my kids to be amazingly wonderful people and I have a great deal of pride in the work I do for them. If you want to see the “good” in young adults, ride bus 27 with the Northridge High School students in the Tuscaloosa City Schools for a day.
The 27th of April was a Wednesday and I woke up and got myself ready for my day and drove down to the shop that houses my bus. I found the lot strangely empty at 6:30 a.m., a time when normal activity is almost at a fevered pitch with drivers checking in, performing their pre-trip bus inspections and starting their routes. I pulled up to the building and a lone head appeared out of the door and said “Go home- weather is supposed to be really bad today and they’ve closed the schools…”
I have to explain too, that in Alabama, tornado weather is so common that many people don’t give it much thought. California has Earthquakes, the north has blizzards and in Alabama, we have Tornados and Hurricanes. The difference between those two is that you typically have three full days to prepare for the hurricane. An editor of mine once mused that it just wouldn’t be Easter in Alabama if you didn’t hear the tornado sirens. Tornados though, pop up and in many instances you have less than 20 minutes to get to a safe location. Still, many in Tuscaloosa and Alabama, me included, have always laughed at the seriousness of tornados and go about our daily lives as if nothing can happen to us. In fact, just a few weeks ago I joked on Facebook that I was getting my hair cut while the tornado sirens went off, and “welcome to spring time in Alabama”.
I decided on the 27th that since I had the day off, I was going to go to Birmingham, a short 40 minute drive down Interstate 59/20, and go to the Birmingham Museum of Art, eat lunch with a friend and generally hang out for the day. While eating lunch, my friend suggested I get back to Tuscaloosa because the weather was supposed to be so terrible. I told them I’d planned on going to the very large shopping mall in Birmingham, the Galleria, instead, rolling my eyes.
Another reason I have a confidence in this kind of weather is because years ago, I took a storm-spotter class provided by the national weather service in Birmingham and learned tornados always travel from southwest to northeast. This can be an important fact if you’re traveling and spot a funnel cloud on the ground. By traveling southeast or northwest of the tornado’s path, you will generally have a better opportunity of escaping injury or damage. I have put this useful little fact into my brain and think about it regularly during Alabama’s two tornado seasons.
I can recognize a wall cloud and know what to look for on weather radar, which I can see on my phone from just about any location. In short, I feel confident in these abilities and use them when going to cover weather-related events. Tuscaloosa is also blessed with an excellent group of volunteer storm spotters, who go out in the worst of conditions to visually confirm tornados that the National Weather Service suspects are on the ground, and since they talk on “Ham” radios, their frequencies can be tracked on a scanner, which I also have on my phone as an Android application. So, between the radar, scanner, education and my experience in being out in the weather as a photojournalist, I have always felt I could “hold my own”.
Boy, was I wrong.
After seeing the devastation of the April 27th tornado that ripped a path 211 miles long and half a mile wide- going through parts of Mississippi, all of Alabama and the northwest corner of Georgia and into Tennessee, I will never, ever take a storm warning lightly again.
According to FEMA, the April 26-28th tornado outbreak is monetarily the third worst disaster in United States history, with only 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina having more damage. There were a total of 288 tracked tornados, almost doubling the previous record of tornado outbreaks in a single event set in 1974 at 148. This outbreak was also the third deadliest in U.S. history with over 300 deaths attributed to the tornados. Almost half of those occurred here in Alabama, with a majority of those happening in the Tuscaloosa and Birmingham areas. In Tuscaloosa, the Red Cross reported that there were a total of 7,371 homes damaged or destroyed in the Tuscaloosa section of the tornado with 95% of those being single family homes and the remainder apartments and mobile homes.
As a photojournalist, you have to be a mix of cold calculation and recording while having a strong compassion and interest in your subjects. I’ve seen death and destruction from other natural disasters— particularly hurricanes in Florida and tornados in Alabama—yet have never experienced anything like that in my own community. Most tornados also hit a small pocket of homes, and lift off the ground, touching down again in another location. The extent of the damage here in Tuscaloosa is simply mind-numbing.
To see a half-mile wide swath of TOTAL destruction, where no trees and no buildings of any kind survive the 190-plus mile-per-hour winds of an EF4 tornado that go on continuously for nearly 6 miles uninterrupted makes you speechless. To see photojournalists from other newspapers around the state and from all over the world covering my community was astounding to me too, particularly when you realize the international level of attention that this event was given. I have a sister who lives in Qatar, in the Middle East, and she sent me an e-mail only hours after the tornado asking if I was OK. In Tuscaloosa alone, the death toll as of this writing stands at 40 people, and may go higher still. Collectively, the April 27th tornados killed more people than any other tornado outbreak in nearly 80 years and is the third deadliest on record now, according to NOAA.
I parked my vehicle at the local fairgrounds, and walked the distance of Kicker Road south to 15th Street. Even though I’d gone through this area daily for a year and a half, I found the wreckage to be so extensive that I had trouble pinpointing my exact location. The stench of natural gas, chemicals, rotted food and even dead animals permeated the air all around me, and it was impossible to get away from the odor.
All around me, there were overturned dumpsters, splintered wood, and downed trees and power lines everywhere. To move from one house to the next became a lesson in deadly maneuvering—one bad step on a live power line, and you’re dead. You also have to worry about broken glass, splintered wood, and sharp metal objects. Stepping onto something and losing your balance can injure you severely, and even kill as well.
Walking through the neighborhoods where my bus runs is a sobering experience. Homes that I knew families were in had disappeared with nothing but the foundation or crawl space as a testament of their existence. I’d see photographers, walking around, eyeing the debris and rushing toward any person who had an emotional response to their situation. Looking around, you see people openly weeping, holding each other and gaining support from friends and family, but always with the unflinching eye of the video or still camera around them.
For the photographers, it’s a buffet of images: Rescue workers, towns people and the victims are all around them, yet to see these people get targeted at close range by some of the press angered me. After all, these are my people—not strangers who lived in some far-off community. I see these people in my daily life, speak to them, wave to them and even transport their children to school. This catastrophe was different in comparison to the many other tornados and Hurricanes that I’ve covered over the years because this was my community. Even as a photojournalist, it seemed invasive in a way that I’d never experienced before.
I have come to be a little more philosophical about this now, and if I have to take anything away from this experience, it is that I will become a better photojournalist because of the experience. I will approach my subjects with more reverence and respect simply because I have now walked in their shoes. Going through the damage and debris daily causes a level of anxiety that I’d never experienced before, and I attribute that to my not having a connection to the places I’d photographed.
It’s always a sad experience when something so cataclysmic happens in any community, but when it’s your home, when it’s the place you hang your hat and drink coffee with your neighbors, something changes about the way you approach the subject as a visual story teller and that ultimately changes you forever.