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. Michael Calaizzo Sr.--Stone Harbor

    we must prepare for the big one.

    April 30, 2011 at 11:01 am | Report abuse |
  2. Michael Calaizzo Sr.--Stone Harbor

    We love Pizza.

    April 30, 2011 at 11:01 am | Report abuse |
  3. Joey

    Walking into my office this morning, I heard a receptionist instructing others to open the windows when a tornado is strongly possible.
    Could there have been any persons in those Southern states who were ignorant of what to do?

    April 30, 2011 at 11:35 am | Report abuse |
    • Romey

      That only works for small tornadoes when they don't pass directly over. A tornado of this size... opening windows isn't going to help. There are not any windows left.

      April 30, 2011 at 1:59 pm | Report abuse |
    • BAMAFAN2011

      People aren't ignorant about what to do. No matter what they did, the tornado would still have destroyed everything.

      April 30, 2011 at 2:25 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jackye Daniel

      An open window isn't worth a crap when you get hit by a mile wide tornado, if you think that makes a difference, go to You Tube and look at the devastation in Hackleburg, AL, and tell me if you think an open window would have mattered.

      May 1, 2011 at 11:49 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Laura


    April 30, 2011 at 1:04 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Tony

    @Laura where are the countries rushing to help us Mexicans with your U.S. high demand of drugs and guns you traffic into our country? you hipocrites

    April 30, 2011 at 1:09 pm | Report abuse |
    • rolling tide

      well now that our state has been destroyed how about we trade you a promise of help later for a nice big shipment up here now?

      May 2, 2011 at 10:09 pm | Report abuse |
  6. E Pope

    It is absolutely horrendous to see the destruction in my state of Alabama. Tuscaloosa really took a heart rendering hit and is definitely in tornado alley. The citizens in other areas in Alabama would appreciate it, if the national news media and the Weather Channel would also focus on demolished areas across the state and especially north Alabama. We appreciate your coverage of Tuscaloosa, but there is destruction all over. One area of concern is the Harvest, Alabama area where Anderson Hills was located. Other southern states who are suffering have been barely mention in the national news media. Words can't express how much we appreciate the hard work of the utility crews(in state and out of state), hospital personnel, local citizens, churches and law enforcement..

    April 30, 2011 at 1:12 pm | Report abuse |
    • Bdo

      I wish I could go help. Too bad our government doesn't request help from the public and pay for them to fly there or something.

      April 30, 2011 at 1:32 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Bob

    Pulleeeze don't tell me there's any truth to global warming.

    April 30, 2011 at 1:49 pm | Report abuse |
  8. candy

    T-town was hit hard no doubt, but I do think Hackelburge, Pillcambel,Cordova and many other cities need help. These towns are small but the death tolls are large and bodies still being found. Prayers go out to them all.

    April 30, 2011 at 1:57 pm | Report abuse |
  9. John

    Why do you americans continue to live in wood houses ?
    what a complete stupidity

    April 30, 2011 at 1:58 pm | Report abuse |
    • ND

      Stupidity is your comment. Is it economically feasible for everyone to live in a reinforced concrete dome for the 1/1000000 chance of a storm this powerful? It's like saying "why do people still fly in airplanes. It's so stupid". Learn some logic. We have wooden homes because wood is plentiful and relatively cheap and sufficient for the task.

      May 1, 2011 at 4:19 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Jay

    And where is the news of FEMA not responding there CNN? hmmmm if this was Bush thats exactly what the liberal media would be reporting on – talk about transparency! Pathetic

    April 30, 2011 at 2:06 pm | Report abuse |
    • rolling tide

      actually jay we dont have to because the "liberal" administration not only managed to clear huge amounts of money through FEMA for our region, he also came down here to make sure he understood what was going on, reassured families, and somehow only a few days later had osama bin laden killed. what are we supposed to complain about? keep in mind this is a region that has widespread beliefs that are polar opposite of obama's. that speaks even more greatly to his contribution. obama and charlie sheen are on the same page. you seem to be stupid

      May 2, 2011 at 10:15 pm | Report abuse |
  11. BAMAFAN2011

    I simply cannot believe the devastation that has happened to my home town. It's absolutely heartbreaking.
    As for the people that use forums like this to say stupid things that have nothing to do with what is going on, find something to do with your life! The people that have negative things to say, such as "why do Americans still live in wooden houses..what complete stupidity", there is absolutely no need for statements like that. People have lost their homes, lives, jobs, and everything. Yes, some of the houses were wooden because they were old and most of them have been lived in since they were built; but, most of the houses, apartments, and businesses were not wooden.

    April 30, 2011 at 2:23 pm | Report abuse |
  12. randy


    April 30, 2011 at 4:33 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Angel

    Wake up and smell the coffee people! This has nothing to do with global warming ok! Ever heard of chemtrails and HAARP? If not you better enlighten yourself to the truth because you haven't seen anything yet! The globalists and Illuminati have a depopulation agenda, and it's not gonna be pretty! People need to stop worrying about useless royal weddings in another country and dancing with the stars and other dumbing- down entertainment and start researching the real things going on in the world!

    May 1, 2011 at 12:09 am | Report abuse |
  14. hunter

    Obama aint gonna do nuthin about this problem in America. He's 2 busy rambling on about not eating frosted flakes cuz of sugar. Well guess wat, I just ate a d*** bowl

    May 1, 2011 at 1:37 am | Report abuse |
  15. chrissy

    hello phillip, banasy, raven, jazz & cesar. hope u all are well miss chattin with u all in spite of the usual festival of idiots in here. & why everytime i come 2 cnn blog one of the lst things i see is someone talkin smack about jazz? are u that bored?

    May 1, 2011 at 3:41 am | Report abuse |
    • Jazzzzzzzz

      Yah, They do talk spak about me cause they LOVE me they really LOVE me, ha ha.

      May 1, 2011 at 4:49 am | Report abuse |
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