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. banasy

    Oh. My. God.

    This is the most horrendous devastation I've ever seen from a tornado, and I've seen plenty of tornado damage! My thoughts and prayers to all who have lost loved ones and their homes. Somehow, in the face of this disaster, my petty little problems seem so...petty.

    April 29, 2011 at 10:53 pm | Report abuse |
  2. TvNYC

    This is horrendous for the southern states. I pray for them. Unfortunately, they are all in harms way. Global warming is going to cause more and more horrific scenes like these. So people keep driving, keep using electricity and one day this world will become a dead planet. All of this is caused because of greed. People are making money more than ever. We should all be living like the omnish people. Truth hurts. They should put laws into effect. Cold fronts will be more potent than ever by each day. Warm fronts will be more potent than ever. There is no end in sight unless we all start living the way we lived say 200 years ago. I'm sure there was way more love in this world back than now anyhow! Today, we all live in a rat race! We have more stress than ever and for what to have the luxury of having cars and facebook. Let's face it we need to bring this modern world right back to where it used to be, ask the Chinese they have this technology before but they know it's bad for our environment. They know what's going to happen and I predict the Chinese will take over our world very soon. Unless we all die before that. We all need to change think about all the people that we would save in the next 100 years. We will all be proud, or reach the energy we should have had in the beginning, solar and wind energy!

    April 29, 2011 at 11:15 pm | Report abuse |
    • BKW

      I live in North Alabama. I've now seen the complete destruction of a small town down the road with my own eyes and I still can't believe it. I've spent two days combing through rubble looking for the missing and the dead. I have never in my life seen such and outpouring of care and help from people who just went through the same storm as the people they're trying to help. For those of you who have not seen this kind of devistation (and unless you live in a war zone you haven't!) try doing something other than criticizing or making fun.. Contact the Red Cross and give up $10 of your starbucks money or come down here and get your hands dirty and meet the people who lost everything including many who lost family and friends! There will be a need for volunteers for weeks and months to come in alot of places.

      April 30, 2011 at 7:34 pm | Report abuse |
  3. 1609

    Jazz is a loser

    April 29, 2011 at 11:42 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Jazzzzzzzz

    1609 – WINNING , NOT

    April 30, 2011 at 12:22 am | Report abuse |
  5. TvNYC

    Ur gay!

    April 30, 2011 at 12:50 am | Report abuse |
  6. corky

    Me too!

    April 30, 2011 at 1:35 am | Report abuse |
  7. Philip

    Wow! That's quite a show you put on Jazz. I reckon the trolls will win though, they always do. Just like CNN, AOL used to have news chatrooms years ago. The troll's appeared and trashed them all. Even though hundreds of complaints were sent, AOL allowed the trolls just like CNN does today. It's as if they enjoy seeing US divided so much, they ignore their own policies

    April 30, 2011 at 4:19 am | Report abuse |
  8. A students educationIRAQ


    WOW... you Americans LOVE guns... while speaking of WMDS... but you have the most and selling them to
    Africa in the lottery sweepstakes hoping all people will be like global digital game players more and more
    detached from reality of anything else but GUNS... weapon sales.. chaos making- (rueeeeeters reports on Africa).

    Enough chaos means no will notice what really goes on in America, the American family pretenses and the rest.

    Eventually the drug dealers will save you worldwide (as above) as the new helping hands in crises and you give them all new legal services in the name of democracy and/or harassment of intelligent dissent.

    Sounds like a true democracy movement- more guns... more free drug "enterprises" kind of like the internet.

    How much does the U.S. governtment pay to INFLUENCE and abstract those of other countries into a
    "pre designed" vision of America life and opinion? They are not alone in this but who leads the way?

    Rumsfeld in rainbow colors remains as R.O.T.C. payola internet Rumsfled.

    Think no one else can see that?


    April 30, 2011 at 5:22 am | Report abuse |
    • ND

      And your comment has jack to do with tornado damage. Go back to your "blame the infidels for our sorry lot in life" rally.

      May 1, 2011 at 4:12 pm | Report abuse |
  9. A students educationIRAQ

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

    On CNN

    The first touching reporters story included a narrative of how some local drug dealers assisted
    some local people resulting in the relieved attorney saying= "hey these guys have free representation for life" its like a true Homer Simpson love story... increasingly Nationwide

    April 30, 2011 at 5:36 am | Report abuse |
    • rolling tide

      in this town, if the attorney knew he was a drug dealer, then the attorney most likely was buying them, you idiot. he probably charged him for lawyer fees in the first place because he was jacking up the price of dank like it was crack. this is exactly what the enemies of america DONT want – rich and poor, black and white, alabama and auburn all working together. until you come help then youre just another tard with a keyboard

      May 2, 2011 at 10:06 pm | Report abuse |
  10. A students educationIRAQ

    Kubrick, Stanley > "A Clockwork Orange"

    Dave, I don't understand why
    you're doing this to me.... I
    have the greatest enthusiasm for
    the mission... You are destroying
    my mind... Don't you understand?
    ... I will become childish... I
    will become nothing.

    April 30, 2011 at 5:44 am | Report abuse |
  11. raven

    I was speechless as I watched footage of the devastation. My heart goes out to everyone affected by this crazy weather. sad.just sad.

    April 30, 2011 at 10:00 am | Report abuse |
  12. Mad Hatter

    wow like watching sci fi horror. The devastation is beyond words. These people need help and shelter. So I'm off to AL to help.

    April 30, 2011 at 10:36 am | Report abuse |
    • telisa

      Where are you from Mad Hatter? All my family live in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.

      May 1, 2011 at 10:53 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Queenie Calaizo-Great Neck

    I love Charlie Sheen.

    April 30, 2011 at 10:57 am | Report abuse |
  14. Queenie Calaizo-Great Neck

    My wife Maria know i am in love with Billy Walsh.

    April 30, 2011 at 10:58 am | Report abuse |
  15. Michael Calaizzo-Great Neck

    This story is really scary.

    April 30, 2011 at 10:59 am | Report abuse |
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