a glowing candle

In Decade Since Devastation, UA Resiliency Leads to Lasting Change

Debris from felled trees sits in the foreground with people working to remove them from around a home with a blue tarp on the roof.
Students helped in the immediate aftermath of the tornado that tore through Tuscaloosa County on April 27, 2011.

There are markers through history that formed The University of Alabama into a new shape, and April 27, 2011, will long be remembered as a devastating day that led to inspiring changes.

In the aftermath of the massive tornado that tore a path through Tuscaloosa just missing campus, the UA and Tuscaloosa communities bonded together to recover, rebuild and grow. In the decade since the natural disaster, UA has girded its storm preparedness to become a leader in the state, opened avenues for research, and built deeper, more sustainable opportunities for students to serve the community.

“The UA community will never forget those we lost and those who suffered that tragic day 10 years ago,” said UA President Stuart R. Bell. “As we reflect over the past decade, we also remember the resiliency of our people in recovering and rebuilding stronger. That day still drives us to improve emergency preparedness, service to others and our own understanding.”

While the University was spared physical damage, six UA students and one UA employee died. Several more were injured, and scores of other students and employees suffered damage to their homes.

In all, 53 people in Tuscaloosa County died directly from the tornado. On April 27 this year, Denny Chimes will toll 53 times during a memorial event in honor of those who died.

Meaningful Service

“What happened here was devastating, but it lit this flame in the institutional mission of service to become a part of the University’s identity,” said Courtney Chapman Thomas, director of UA’s Center for Service and Leadership. “Even though the students on campus today weren’t here 10 years ago, they are still a part of that legacy that this is one community, that we raise up and engage for sustainable and meaningful service.”

A photo of Terry Saban handing over keys to a homeowner.
Nick and Terry Saban, with their Nick’s Kids Foundation, pledged to build a Habitat for Humanity home in the tornado recovery area for every national title Alabama wins. To date, they’ve built 17 homes.

Just last year, students working through the center assisted with a remodel of a home damaged in the 2011 tornado but never repaired because of lack of insurance and resources. Students not only worked with the local chapter of Habitat for Humanity on the project but also helped raise the money needed to finish the job.

In the days, months and even years after April 27, the benevolence of others helped the Tuscaloosa community recover, and students and employees were there as well to help remove debris, rebuild homes, and collect, manage and deliver donations. The lessons learned led UA to recognition as a leader in disaster response.

The center works with local communities affected by disasters to assess needs before organizing relief efforts, and students volunteer in droves to donate and serve. Hundreds of UA students have worked recovery efforts across the Southeast in places such as Houston, Texas; Baton Rouge, Louisiana; along the Gulf Coast and in partnership with Jacksonville State University in eastern Alabama.

“There was an outpouring to the Tuscaloosa community in 2011, and we make sure to pay that back by responding to others,” Thomas said.

Deep relationships with service organizations in West Alabama were forged after the April 27 tornado, part of a super outbreak of twisters across the region, and those partnerships are still active today as a place where students can plug in.

“The tornado shifted our approach to become part of sustainable efforts so that we work alongside community organizations to empower students to stand in the gaps,” Thomas said. “Service is part of our students’ make-up, and it is inspiring to see them give through service and philanthropy to a place they are making their home.”

“What happened here was devastating, but it lit this flame in the institutional mission of service to become a part of the University’s identity.”

Another lasting change is the Acts of Kindness Fund, set up in the days after the tornado as a way for individuals to donate money to assist students and employees experiencing hardship from the April 27 tornado. After meeting its initial purpose, the fund remains to help those at the University facing financial hardship because of an emergency.

Emergency Management

Tornado Shelter sign on the outside of North Lawn Hall
The tornado shelter at North Lawn Hall is one of four designated shelters on campus.

Along with service, the University improved its disaster preparedness and response since 2011. A robust alert system, including an indoor and outdoor announcement system, was in place then, but since UA has implemented the following enhancements:

“We have worked to enhance how we let the campus community know of potential threats. We need multiple ways to communicate because no one system will work for everyone,” said Donald Keith, director of emergency management. “We have built in resiliency because technology can fail.”

Beyond communication, UA is strengthening its ability to provide shelter and refuge during severe weather. Since 2011, four storm shelters rated by federal standards to withstand up to 250 mph winds have been built on campus. Three others are under construction on the University Services Campus, Hewson Hall and the new Tutwiler Hall with several others planned. Grants from the Federal Emergency Management Agency help cover the construction costs for most of the shelters.

In addition, UA emergency management staff evaluated, identified and placed wayfinding to the Best Available Refuge Area in every campus building and built BARA’s inside the Magnolia and Capstone parking decks.

UA is a leader in the state in providing storm shelter and refuge locations for students and employees.

“Disaster readiness is about protecting the campus’ most valuable assets – our students, faculty and staff,” Keith said. “Our work over these past 10 years has always kept the goal of safety top of mind.”

Expert Research

Preparing for a storm on campus is crucial, but so are the efforts by UA researchers to provide expertise on issues surrounding tornados and severe weather.

two men wearing hard hats examine a piece of wood in a debris field from the April 27, 2011 tornado
Former UA engineering professors Dr. David Grau, left, and Dr. John van de Lindt examine a storm-devastated site in Tuscaloosa after the tornado.

The UA Center for Advanced Public Safety is part of a regional project to gain an in-depth understanding of vulnerabilities communities face during severe weather events. The data from the study will be used to improve tornado warnings.

In fact, UA researchers are part of several efforts to enhance storm communications, including leading surveys of people in the South to examine the effectiveness of tornadic-related weather information on the public and a study on how tornado warnings could be improved in their accessibility and comprehension by members of the Deaf, Blind and Deaf-Blind communities.

The projects are part of a legacy of storm-related research at UA. Early on after the April 27 tornado, Dr. Suzanne Horsley, now an assistant dean in the College of Communication and Information Sciences, was able to put in practice her research in crisis communications with the Red Cross, which led to other projects.

UA engineering researchers were key in a multi-institutional effort to analyze building structures and codes to design safer and stronger buildings for the future. UA researchers were also part of teams studying the damage left by tornados in Joplin, Missouri, that struck in May 2011 and in Moore, Oklahoma, in May 2013.

The researchers’ goal was to better understand forces generated by large tornadoes and the distribution of wind force across a tornado’s path. Their findings, published in 2014, showed small changes to home construction could save structures and lives during tornadoes.

UA researchers are part of several efforts to enhance storm communications, including leading surveys of people in the South to examine the effectiveness of tornadic-related weather information.

Engineering researchers using an innovative lab with a debris cannon also worked with the local Habitat for Humanity chapter on a study of storm shelter walls to see if tweaking the design and materials can improve performance while lowering costs.

Besides communication and engineering research, other areas of campus have leveraged the knowledge of faculty and staff experts to prepare society for disasters. For instance, the Alabama Center for Insurance Information and Research in the Culverhouse College of Business partnered with others to produce the 2016 Tornado Preparedness Guide & Insurance Tips for the state of Alabama.

Watch: Tuscaloosa Tornado 10-Year Remembrance


Adam Jones, UA communications, 205-348-4328, adam.jones@ua.edu