Gerber: Tornadoes -- one year, many lives

Gerber: Tornadoes -- one year, many lives

April 22nd, 2012 by Alison Gerber in Opinion Columns

Three states. Forty-five tornadoes. Eighty-one dead.

Winds over 200 mph that sliced buildings and shook the earth.

A year ago, the Tennessee Valley was in the crosshairs of the deadliest tornado outbreak in U.S. history.

Of the 322 lives lost in three unrelenting days of tornadoes across six states, a quarter were here. The worst of it hammered Apison in Hamilton County, Ringgold, Ga., and Alabama's DeKalb and Jackson counties. The storms killed 44 people in those two counties alone.

Our reporters and photographers were there to document the lives and property stolen by the wind. And as the dust and debris settled, they remained in the field to report on the aftermath. They wrote about the questions of faith that surfaced after the storm left. They wrote about residents' efforts to clean up, fight off looters and get insurance money. They followed them as they rebuilt or chose to walk away.

The stories were wrenching: A single family that lost four members from four generations in less than 10 seconds. Students who didn't live to see graduation.

The communities hit by tornadoes have come a long way since then. New houses and freshly painted restaurants are helping wipe out the tornadoes' imprint. Businesses have reopened. Battered churches are again holding services.

But we can't forget there's still more work to be done. The region is still dotted with tarp-covered houses, piles of rubble and acres of snapped trees. And there are still people with broken hearts and broken bodies, learning to cope.

On today's front page, read Mariann Martin's gripping survival story about 90 minutes in the lives of four tornado victims and three emergency responders in rural Alabama. See a detailed timeline of the 15 hours of destruction, meticulously put together by reporter Kate Harrison.

It starts at 7:30 a.m., when the first tornadoes touched down in DeKalb County, Ala., and ends at 10:22 p.m. in Bledsoe County when a woman called 911 to say: "My house is falling around me."

This coverage kicks off a six-day report looking at where we've been and where we are a year later.

The report concludes on April 27, the anniversary of the tornadoes.

A team of reporters and photographers scoured parts of Tennessee, Georgia and Alabama in recent weeks. They found stories about people whose lives were forever changed by the storms. About those still rebuilding. Those still mourning. Those who cannot forget. Those who have summoned every ounce of courage and moved on. Stories about victims and heroes; hope and despair.

We'll publish those stories and try to answer lingering questions. Are we any better prepared to face a tornado outbreak? Could it happen again?

Even as people move on and more of the destruction is undone, the newspaper will continue to examine the long-term impact of the storms.