Serving the campus of the University of Alabama since 1894

The Crimson White

Serving the campus of the University of Alabama since 1894

The Crimson White

Serving the campus of the University of Alabama since 1894

The Crimson White

Displaced professors coping with disaster

Steve Miller, a professor in the school of library and information sciences, Phil Westbrook, the director of Blackburn Institute and Meredith Cummings, professor of journalism are among many University of Alabama professors now trying to pick up the remnants of their belongings after an EF 5 tornado destroyed their homes on Wednesday.

Miller said he was in the kitchen with his wife, two parents, dog and friend Adam on Wednesday, watching the path of the tornado on TV. When they saw it was four miles away and heading in the direction of their neighborhood, Miller said they ran down into the basement.

“As we were running down we heard the sound of a locomotion, like a train,” Miller said. “It was a huge sound. Huge. We crunched down in the middle of the basement by a wall, and then everything was a huge roar.  We could hear the house tearing apart above us.”

Miller said his cat got loose from his hands, and they thought it ran up into the garage just as the garage disappeared from the house.  Luckily, they later found it hiding in the basement. When the storm calmed, Miller said his family came out in shock, pushing past all kinds of wood.

“All the walls and foundation shifted,” Miller said. “The top of the house is gone, and everything is blown completely around. The front of the house, the porch and everything is gone.”

Miller said they went to spend the night at the next door neighbor’s house whn it began to get dark.

“We stayed in their living room, and rain was coming in because the windows were all blown out,” he said. “We had to try to calm the animals down, and the whole neighborhood was in shock at that point.”

Miller said he spent Thursday clearing big trees away with chainsaws so trucks could get onto the street. They also had to try to identify things that could be saved.

He said eventually some friends were able to get in with pickup trucks and carry a couple of loads of their stuff away. He spent the night in Northport Thursday with his family, and they are back trying to salvage more things today.

Miller said the family’s two cars are wrecked, and their house will have to be bulldozed. He said a lot of people have been out on his street helping out.

“A bunch of my students ended up walking in yesterday to make sure we are OK,” Miller said.  “That was very, very sweet of them.”

He also said the National College Book Art Association has set up a rescue fund for his family so that people can call in and donate, and his family is appreciative of this effort.

Philip Westbrook, director of the Blackburn Institute, said he was at his home alone in The Downs when the tornado struck.

“I was watching the coverage, and I saw the video coming in from the camera downtown, so I went into the interior bathroom and got in the bathtub,” Westbrook said. “I heard loud popping, and the roof blew off and the windows blew out. When the tornado struck the house, my ears popped really hard. Immediately afterwards, I could smell pine from all of the trees that had broken.”

Westbrook said he didn’t realize that the house had been destroyed, at first, because he just thought a tree had fallen on it. Then he came out and noticed the roof was missing and the porch had come off.

“Sheetrock was all that was left over me, with two-by-fours holding it in place,” he said. “The University community has been gracious and kind. Lots of students, colleagues and friends from Trinity United Methodist Church have helped me cut down trees and pack up my belongings.

Westbrook said while many of his personal belongings will be salvageable, some will not because they are so wet.

“My house is not livable,” Westbrook said. “I’m staying with friends and family. Miraculously, myself and my neighbors came out with not a scratch on us although almost all of the houses have been damaged or completely destroyed.”

Meredith Cummings, a UA journalism professor, said her house in the Downs is technically still standing, but it’s not livable.

“We live in a historic neighborhood, and every tree in our neighborhood—skyscraper tall pine trees —fell on the houses,” she said. “Our bedroom has what we call a skylight now, because we can look up and see the sky. Our garage got picked up and moved, the fences are gone, and the outside furniture is probably in Atlanta.”

Cummings said her 8-year-old daughter’s room looks like it got some of the worst of the storm. She said all of her furniture was stuck up against the window, as if the tornado were trying to suck everything out of the house.

“All of her toys and books and dolls are ruined,” Cummings said. “There is a lot of damage. It’s ultimately going to be months and months.”

Cummings said the Dows is a close-knit neighborhood with only about 70 houses and a lot of University people living there.

“We all know each other, each other’s pets and children,” Cummings said. “The most beautiful sound in the world was my best friend calling me after the tornado hit.”

Cummings’ husband was at work at the time, and she hid in the closet with her daughther.

“I explained to her that it was going to be like a rollercoaster, really fast and really scary,” she said. “I told her to do the ‘tornado turtle’ like she learned at school, and I sort of laid on top of her and put a pillow on top of me. I told her to hold on to me like her life depended on it. I was thinking as a reporter of all the parents I’ve read about and talked to who have gotten separated from their children. I was terrified.”

Cummings said the tornado shook and blew, and trees came through the roof of her house.

“I’ve always heard people say that tornadoes sound like a train, and I always thought it was an odd description,” Cummings said. “But it sounds like you’re sitting at the track on 15th street listening to a freight train coming on the track, but it sounds like it is coming for you. My head and my ears actually hurt a lot for about 24 hours afterward from the air pressure.”

She said when it was over she was afraid to move out of the closet because she was scared they were pinned inside. She said they waited inside for a long, long time until her best friend, Jennifer, came and got them out.

“It was pretty awful, and what’s interesting is that I’m a journalism professor and am used to dealing with the news 24 hours a day,” Cummings said. “After being cut off from the news for over 48 hours because I didn’t have the power or ability to watch anything, you’d think I’d want to watch all of the footage. But when I got to my mother’s in Springville, I had this odd sensation that I didn’t want to watch any of it because that’s what I just got away from.”

She said she is very sensitive to the fact that her young daughter has lived through a traumatic event.

“I asked her if she wanted to go home and get some of her things, and she said she doesn’t go back there,” Cummings said. “And then she said, ‘Well, if you can make it pretty again, then I’ll go home.’ So that’s what I’m going to do.”

She said she has been able to recover an amazing amount of her personal belongings, considering the circumstances.

“It’s sort of random and strange though — what’s there and what’s not,” Cummings said. “For example, I realized today that I can’t find my hairbrush. I have no idea where it is. It’s like when the tornado came through, it left nothing where I put it. The very precious items, and super important things we had in a fire box, [are] still there. But some of my memory boxes, like from high school, and photo albums and things were in the garage that got picked up and moved, I have no idea where they are. I’m no to that point yet.”

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