Scenes from a tornado disaster zone: 'It just gets worse and worse'
April 29th, 2011
10:42 PM ET

Scenes from a tornado disaster zone: 'It just gets worse and worse'

As a photographer capturing disaster scenes, CNN's Aaron Brodie says he looks for evidence of what used to exist among the devastated landscape. He struggled to find those details as he toured the mangled ruins of Alberta, Alabama, with CNN's Wayne Drash after a tornado tore through the Tuscaloosa neighborhood Wednesday. Here's his description of the scene:

We showed up in town at a CVS drugstore in Tuscaloosa as workers were putting boards up on the windows. It was pretty banged up: Windows were blown out, cosmetics and drugs were on the floor. Four college students came up, put bottled water into shopping carts and said they were going to a neighborhood called Alberta. It seems really bad over there. Nobody’s paying attention, they said. People are just walking around in a daze with their belongings in a bag.

Ground Zero in Alberta: Horror and hope, tears and prayers

They drove us through these back roads to get to Alberta. When we got there the road was blocked off and the neighborhood officially evacuated because of natural gas leaks. We sneaked in on a back road and found there were still some people there. We wandered street by street looking for what we had been told was a newly constructed elementary school that had been destroyed.

The houses were small, old, wood-framed. The residents are on the lower economic rung and many are elderly. It seems to be the kind of neighborhood people call home their entire lives.

As we went down each street, the devastation got worse and worse and worse. We'd look down one street and see numerous trees lying across the road, cars in trees, houses moved off foundations. We'd look down another street and see no trees or homes at all, just endless piles of debris.

Everywhere you go there's destruction. Just when you think, OK, I'm not going to see something worse, you see something worse.

We continued walking toward where the school was supposed to be, talking to people on the way. A lot of those who survived didn't have injuries and were in amazingly good spirits considering the circumstances - in some cases even laughing and telling jokes. What else can you do when you've lost everything?

Wayne and I were surprised so many people thanked us for being there. People usually don’t want to talk to the media after such a tragedy, but almost everyone thanked us for being out there. The friendliest people I've ever met.

As a photographer you look for the details that show what was once there. But I couldn't even find the details; things were just mangled beyond recognition. The further we went, the worse it got. We got to the school and the entire front wall was blown down. You walk around and there are no walls, parts of the roof were gone. Walking inside, you can see the linoleum tile on the floor. I sat down on a carpet in the library, and there were no walls, no roof;  just a single shelf of books. You wouldn’t know it was a library if it weren't for the books.

We thought, we've gotta get back and get this stuff out on CNN. We circled back in the car, tried to get out the way we went in, went to a Home Depot and got a whole pack of 24 water bottles for $3 - you'd think they would've marked it up.

We come across a Big Lots that we'd heard had taken a hard hit. It was basically gone. If anyone had been in there when the tornado hit, I can't see how they could have survived. The cars in front of Big Lots were piles of metal and scraps. Apart from a bumper that said Mustang, you couldn't tell the make of the cars.

There were gawkers everywhere. There were kids walking around in the debris, 8-year-olds and parents out there with kids in strollers behind yellow police tape. People driving around trying to get a look wherever they could.

The sun went down and we wanted to get back to hotel before dark.

Friday morning we went back to Alberta. We were blocked off from where we wanted to go while President Obama toured the area.  Afterward we went to Alberta  Baptist Church. It was pretty hard hit but still standing.

A block away was the worst devastation I'd seen, just when I thought it couldn’t get worse. Up on a hill, looking down a rolling valley, you could see the path - you could tell where the tornado had been. The same kind of piles we saw at Big Lots but as far as the eye could see. Bark was stripped off trees, lightposts bent - absolutely nothing was recognizable. Upside-down cars smashed in, it just went on and on. It looked like a wind had come though there that was so powerful that nothing could stand in its way. The trees that did remain were like sticks: no leaves, no limbs, no bark. There were no recognizable structures, all you could see was piles.

Amid this, people were walking out from Alberta in droves. One guy had a dolly with a garbage can and all his stuff in it. Another guy was carrying all of his sister's possessions wrapped in a cloth - her stuff and the stuff belonging to her five kids. It was a steady stream of people who lived there coming out with what little possessions they had left. People were also coming in on ATVs and four-wheelers, wanting to help out, asking, "Do you want burgers or chips?"

People were saying it was like an atomic bomb went off, and when I was at CVS I was like, "Yeah right." But after what I've seen ... I'm sure there is some disaster in modern America where the damage per square foot would compare, but I honestly don’t know what it is.

We saw elderly people in wheelchairs - these are people who can least afford to come back from this. If they owned their house or their car, is their insurance going to take care of it all? They’ve lost a lifetime of memories, their photos were probably blown into Birmingham. Where do you even start to rebuild?

This is the fifth tornado I've covered. I've covered tornadoes in Texas. But the devastation here, you can't even quantify this next to the others, it's not on the same scale. We've seen 5 miles of it in little more than two days. But you could probably spend two weeks surveying the destruction. For a tornado, the damage is astoundingly widespread.

Driving back to Atlanta, I’m almost to Birmingham and still seeing trees snapped off. I stopped to fill up in Talladega, Alabama. A gentleman inside was talking to the clerk trying to get permission to buy 50 gallons of gasoline. He had two gas cans, and he said his frustration was he couldn’t get more cans. He had two generators, and he was heading to DeKalb County, Alabama, where they have no power and the gas stations can't pump anymore. Just an ordinary guy at a gas station in Talladega, trying to get fuel for an entire town.

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Filed under: Alabama • Tornadoes • Weather
soundoff (49 Responses)
  1. chrissy

    and angel enlighten me plz about harp?? and chemtrails? cant see what they have to do about acts of god but then also ive never heard of them either but gotta say u have certainly peaked my interest. educate me please and im not being sarcastic honestly

    May 1, 2011 at 3:51 am | Report abuse |
  2. Philip

    Hay chrissy! Haven't seen you in quite a while. Good to see you again. And Jazz7 too! (smack) he he...and I'd fill ya in about HAARP and chemtrails, but want to see what Angel posts on the subject Angel?

    May 1, 2011 at 10:15 am | Report abuse |
  3. Paige McKinney

    I live in Fort Payne AL . In Dekalb County alone we had almost 40 deaths, but I have not heard any reports of any kind.
    All I keep hearing about is Tuscaloosa. I know they were hit bad too, but people need to see the pictures of the areas that look like active war zones. Houses and vehicles decimated in Rainsville, Sylvania, and Blake/ High Point Community. No help is showing up. I'm so upset that these people are getting looked over. HEEEEEEEEEEEELLLP please!!!!!

    May 2, 2011 at 7:19 pm | Report abuse |
  4. rolling tide

    paige... dont worry, help is coming. in tuscaloosa my block was lucky enough to be spared by that monster, and the aftermath was shocking to even the most tornado-complacent southerners i know. we have had an incredible response in this city, and have focused on the immediate needs of our citizens. however, luckily for the rest of the state, many of the students were spared our lives, property, and final exams. on facebook and twitter the past 2 days ive seen a massive uprising in grassroots efforts to get specific needs in specific communities, including dozens of the smaller towns in northern alabama. dont think of them covering tuscaloosa as your people getting "looked over;" instead, be thankful that any attention at all is being paid to this storm. the tuscaloosa tornado had everything the media needs to make an already-compelling story become a nationally-relevant humanitarian effort: total annihilation of many different parts of an urbanized region, a noticeable path of destruction that looks like a 100 year old scar on the earth, and clear-cut, hollywood-type videos caught by dumb college kids "stormchasing." if your community needs help, i would advise contacting the "toomers for tide" group on facebook first, and the EMA second. there are people all over the country ready and willing to bring water, food, clothes, etc, and help rebuild, they just need someone to tell them where theyre needed. social media turned an event that could parallel katrina in terms of incompetent response into one that looks more like all of earths superpowers joining together to blow up an asteroid coming toward earth. i grew up in huntsville and my parents house was hit too. my heart goes out to everyone in north alabama and i would be up there helping if there werent such an immediate need to help my friends who have lost everything. i know it can seem youre being overlooked, but tuscaloosa apparently just serves as the best "poster child" for this insane outburst of storms

    May 2, 2011 at 9:57 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Homewood

    Wonderful explanation of the extent of the damage; he, like many, has seen tornado damage before, but nothing like this. I am commenting because I have been amazed to hear people around the county question why (they thought) Alabama had no notice and was not prepared. We knew it would be bad days before, and, on Wednesday, our local media outlets discussed each possible tornado as a trouble spot emerged. I live in Birmingham. I watched on TV the tornado approach Tuscaloosa, and cried and prayed with neighbors whose child attended the University there. Then we watched the trip that tornado took to Birmingham, which is 60 miles away, and took cover ourselves as it devastated nearby neighborhoods. That was one of many tornados that we watched or heard about, and all of the tornados stayed on the ground for astonishingly long periods of time. Our local media repeatedly emphasized the seriousness of the situations and the actions to take to best protect life. While it is difficult to take in the scope of the damage, I cannot even imagine how much greater the loss of life would be without those warnings that allowed people to protect themselves as best they could.

    May 3, 2011 at 9:41 am | Report abuse |
  6. mary

    I wish there was coverage of other areas that were devastated by these storms. Other places were hit besides Tuscaloosa. A simple mention of DeKalb County. . .how about some real news coverage?

    May 8, 2011 at 10:19 pm | Report abuse |
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    January 13, 2012 at 12:05 pm | Report abuse |
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