By: Heidi Kulicke
April 27, 2011 is a day many Americans living in the South won’t soon forget. For many, daily life as they knew it was transformed. An estimated 211 tornadoes ravaged seven Southern states, including massive EF-5 tornadoes wider than a mile and packing winds greater than 200 miles per hour. The tornado outbreak killed at least 350 people. Alabama was the hardest hit with at least 238 reported casualties, according to government officials. In the following weeks and months, several other tornadoes wreaked havoc across the Southern and Midwestern U.S., including the EF-5 tornado that tore through Joplin, Mo. May 22. The twister death count rose to more than 500 in 2011, making this tornado season one of the deadliest in history.
In their paths, the tornadoes destroyed homes, churches, and other property, uprooting families and closing schools, leaving hundreds of thousands without electricity. Three Alabama sister papers — The Huntsville Times, The Birmingham News, and the Mobile Press-Register — joined together to create “Day of Devastation,” a 128-page volume documenting stories of hope and tragedy through words and photos of the April 27 event.
In the past, the newspapers have partnered to produce commemorative books on the state’s national championship football wins. “We kind of had a rhythm for what we needed to do. But the challenge was it wasn’t sports — homes were lost and people were killed,” said Kevin Wendt, editor of the Times.
The tornado outbreak was so intense and affected so many people the editors felt it was an event people would want to remember. A book seemed like a good way to serve that need, Wendt said. “We saw so much extra demand for newspapers, we felt folks were not only using the newspaper for information — more than 250,000 people in the Times’ circulation area were without power for at least four days — but they were also keeping it to remember such a tragic event,” he said.
Additional challenges included being thorough while keeping the book navigable, ensuring eachnewspaper involved felt like it was fairly represented, and including all of the different communities in the state that were affected. In the end, Wendt said each area was well represented in an organized way.
As residents continue to rebuild their lives, Wendt hopes more is done to improve the chances of surviving a tornado in the future. “There’s never going to be a way to ensure everyone survives an EF-5 tornado. But as homes are rebuilt, we have to enter into a discussion that ensures standards are uniform to set ourselves up for success,” he said.
The community response to those in need has been overwhelming. Thousands of volunteers rallied together in the aftermath to help however they could. “Huntsville has a strong church network and is also home to a major Army installation, so the spirit of giving and helping one’s neighbor was already there; it just needed to be directed,” he said. Many humanitarian groups, including the Red Cross and the Salvation Army, have organized relief efforts.
For ways to help Alabama, call the out-of-state help hotline at (888) 421-1266. A portion of the proceeds of the book will be donated to the Governor’s Emergency Relief Fund, created to help those affected by the tornadoes. In the works is an iPad app to give readers access not only to the material in the book, but also to videos and interactive presentations that appeared online. The book is available at HuntsvilleStore.com.