It would be lunacy to suggest that the April tornadoes did anyone a favor in Alabama. But from the rubble and death is emerging a chance that the devastated communities might illustrate what’s possible, not what’s lost.
It is as inspiring as it is daunting.
It may become — if you buy into cheesy talking points — a new definition of Alabama’s finest hour, of obliterated communities harboring big dreams and accomplishing just that.
Case in point is Tuscaloosa, which, right or wrong, has been anointed the unofficial national face of Alabama’s 4-27. So many other towns met destruction that day: Pratt City, Cordova, Cullman, Hackleburg, an assortment of communities in northern Calhoun County and surrounding areas. They are everywhere. Pain is equally shared.
Yet, Tuscaloosa’s story offers different storylines, if for no other reason than the amount of destruction and its proximity to the University of Alabama campus. It’s not surprising that UA’s first home football game this fall is expected to be a cathartic, emotional event that represents a city rising from the debris.
That’s all fine. It’s a great story.
But Alabamians would err if they don’t pay attention to Tuscaloosa Forward, which sits at the center of that city’s rebuilding efforts.
“No one wants to build next to a vacant lot with an unknown future.” — Tuscaloosa Forward plan
Last Saturday, Tuscaloosa Forward and Mayor Walt Maddox released a draft of the group’s strategic community plan. It’s easier to say what it isn’t than what it is. It is not a baseline schedule for putting Tuscaloosa back as it was — though that would be welcomed by those who lost everything in the tornadoes.
Instead, it is a remarkable document that lays out strong reasons why Tuscaloosa should rebuild itself better than it was before. It is grandiose, and that’s OK. With deep input from thousands of city residents, planners envision a Tuscaloosa much different from the one ravaged by Mother Nature. Think reinvention, not rebuilding.
It would become, the Tuscaloosa Forward draft suggests, a city with connected neighborhoods, village centers and distinct districts. It would include a greenway “path of remembrance and revitalization.” What now is a wide swath of tornado destruction through Tuscaloosa’s center would become rebuilt neighborhoods and parks and gathering places that would transform death and destruction into life and vitality.
This critical point isn’t missed: Tuscaloosa’s leaders seem to understand that there is opportunity in this tragedy. All hope isn’t lost. Authors of the Tuscaloosa Forward draft call it the “extremely rare circumstance” of three key elements collaborating on the city’s future: construction, reinvestment and community focus.
In this example, Tuscaloosa “gets” to reconstruct itself. Not just one neighborhood or apartment complex, but many. Not just one street or one business district or one shopping mall, but hundreds of them.
Thus, the Tuscaloosa Forward draft discusses, with expertise, different land-use concepts, its high-level vision for the destroyed areas and strategies for enhancing neighborhoods. Throughout the draft there seems to exist a strong desire to retain what’s described as “the unique character of Tuscaloosa.”
“It is possible to emerge from a disaster a stronger and more capable city than before.” — Tuscaloosa Forward plan
From afar, it is easy to be swept up in the promise of Tuscaloosa’s efforts. They’re stirring. They also make me wonder how Calhoun County’s largest towns would have reacted had April’s tornadoes taken different paths.
If Anniston were Tuscaloosa — with Quintard Avenue wiped off the map, with Golden Springs neighborhoods obliterated, with city infrastructure damaged — would residents have bonded, community-wide, to recover and rebuild and plan wisely for the future?
Would Anniston’s dysfunctional elected leadership be a hindrance or a help? How would Oxford have dealt with widespread destruction? What about Jacksonville and its university campus?
What we know is neighbors care, and they are willing to help. We’ve seen that in Ohatchee and Webster’s Chapel and other areas where the tornadoes hit. Northeast Alabama, like Tuscaloosa, is resilient and strong.
No amount of grand rebuilding should make us wish for what Tuscaloosa is enduring. It’s unfair and overwhelming. But it does show us there always are opportunities to better the towns in which we live, and we must not squander them.
Phillip Tutor — firstname.lastname@example.org — is The Star’s commentary editor.