The first thing that struck me was the impact on the trees, or, more accurately, the absence of them. A gorgeous tree-lined neighborhood had been pulverized, meaning I could stand in the neighborhood and see far across town.
This was Tuscaloosa, Ala., my former home and a city with beautiful oaks, a meandering riverfront and a bustling college campus. And it had just been the epicenter of one of the worst tornadoes in the past century, leveling thousands of structures, killing hundreds of people across the state and toppling lives as easily as it upended those gigantic trees.
Even as someone who has seen plenty of disaster-ravaged communities in my years as a journalist, including the post-Katrina New Orleans, I was stunned by the scope and severity of the damage. It hit some of the city's oldest and neediest neighborhoods. In many cases, homes were sliced away at their foundations and the occupants buried under rubble. The mayor said it wasn't a disaster but a nightmare.
I arrived in Alabama a day after the tornado struck, and while I was immediately heartbroken and staggered by the loss of life, I was grateful for one significant blessing. My 8-year-old daughter and ex-wife's house had been in the path of the tornado, and they huddled in a closet. They survived and managed during a harrowing night to get to safety. The material loss is just material, because that pales in comparison to the relief that I am feeling for their well-being and the safe status of my close friends who live there.
The cleanup process is massive and will take months if not years. In my daughter's neighborhood, I spent a day pulling away tree limbs and gathering some possessions, but it seemed almost futile when viewed against the entirety of the damage. I smiled when I found her scooter in the ruins of the back yard — the same yard that is adjacent to a housing development that was absolutely leveled and, grimly, the same yard where the power company found a body on Monday.
This is a town whose residents have a great deal of faith, not just in the beloved Crimson Tide football team that plays at the University of Alabama but in one another. I loved living there, where I worked at the newspaper and raised a family. It is a community where neighbors help neighbors, and kindness is apparent in many forms. All of that goodwill and charity will be needed in Tuscaloosa, and more, as people start to rebuild their homes and their lives.
My former colleagues at the local paper have been heroic in their coverage, providing key information and images online and in print and working tirelessly to be a lifeline for their readers. Some of them have lost their homes and have just not stopped working for days. They epitomize what I admire most about journalists.
While I waited at the Birmingham airport to fly back to California this weekend, I watched as each plane's passengers would arrive. On each flight, there were a handful of people who would emerge wearing Red Cross attire. They had come from across the country to help, and they would join the small army of volunteers already at work. I was inspired to see them show up, and, thanks to my work with the Sonoma County Red Cross, I know that when a disaster strikes, whether a house fire or an epic tornado, the Red Cross is part of the safety net that comes to the rescue.
My family was fortunate to survive the storm with only property damage, but there are thousands of other people who were far worse off and are in need of support. I hope many Americans, who have already been so generous after disasters in Haiti and Japan and elsewhere around the globe, turn their attention domestically and help make the Deep South whole again.
Greg Retsinas, interactive editor at The Press Democrat, is the former city editor of the Tuscaloosa News. Email him at email@example.com.