For anyone who might have wondered where I disappeared to for a couple of weeks - just got back from a long road trip to my former home state of Alabama, where most of my family still lives.  While the main purpose of the journey was to spend time with some sick Grandparents, it also gave me my first chance to see the damage caused by the deadly tornadoes that came through on April 27th - and bring back some photos.

First stop - Pleasant Grove, Alabama.  It's a small suburb of Birmingham - around 10,000 people lived there prior to the storms.  The video below was taken just as it started to pass through, after it had already devastated Tuscaloosa:


My Grandma is in a retirement home about a mile from where most of the damage came through - and on the way to her place, you couldn't really tell that anything had happened.  As we got closer, we started seeing a ton of signs advertising everything from FEMA assistance to roofing/demolition contractors, church shelters, and a sign handwritten on the front windows of the local United Steel Workers union hall that gave a little reality-check perspective into what these people had been dealing with:  "Mourn For The Dead, Fight For The Living."


I called up my old college friend and roommate Scott Pilkerton to serve as tour guide - Scott and his family have lived in and around the area for as long as I can remember.   They were lucky to miss damage at their place, and ride out the storm in the basement of his wife's parents' house - which escaped getting hit by about a mile.  Many of their family and friends weren't as fortunate, some lost everything.




We jumped in Scott's truck and drove through the hardest-hit areas - and managed to take several photos of what used to be beautiful and fairly densely-populated Pleasant Grove neighborhoods - much like what you'd find in East Casper, or Paradise Valley.  While the damage is pretty shocking - it's important to remember that these pictures were taken after a lot of cleanup has already taken place, and that in situations like this, photos really don't do justice.

Scott knew the area and the people well enough to tell a story behind each photo - and some of the stories were absolutely heartbreaking.  I can't imagine what it was like in those first hours and days - impassable streets, searching in total darkness for survivors, children without parents, dead and injured all over the neighborhood with no way to get emergency crews to them.

As you'll see in some of the pictures above - it was amazing how the tornado had absolutely wiped some homes away, leaving only a basement or a foundation - and others still stood, but with entire side walls peeled away, leaving books neatly stacked on the shelf in a child's room, or clothes undisturbed hanging in a closet.  A couple of trees remained upright, most of the branches gone - stripped down to their core with clothes, metal, and various storm debris wrapped around them where bark used to be.

While most of our photos on the trip came from Pleasant Grove, we also made it out to another area hit by the storm - Tuscaloosa, Alabama.   Tuscaloosa's a little less than double the size of Casper, is home to the University Of Alabama (Roll Tide), and was the first to meet up with the half-mile wide tornado that eventually moved on to Pleasant Grove.

Here's storm chaser video that gives you a little glimpse of how large this tornado actually was:

And aerial footage of the damage, afterwards:

We pulled off the interstate into the Forest Lake neighborhood of Tuscaloosa, and stopped there for photos - only because it was the closest and most easily-accessible.  There's tons of places there that still look like this or worse, I'm told.

These are only two communities of several in Alabama impacted by the April storms.  To be fair, I'm focusing on Alabama because of our recent trip and the personal connection I have to the state - scenes like this are taking place right now in parts of Missouri, Arkansas, Mississippi, North Carolina, Georgia, Louisiana, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, and even Massachusetts.

Important to keep in mind that our fellow Americans in these towns are still struggling, even though the story's been pushed off the front page and doesn't make the evening news lately.  These places will take years to get back to normal, and some will never be the same.

If you can help - here's a great list of ways to do it.