On April 27, 2011, a massive tornado ripped through Tuscaloosa, Alabama. That month, tornadoes also struck other parts of the South. The tornadoes killed hundreds throughout the region; more than 50 people died in Tuscaloosa. Twelve percent of the city was destroyed and 7,000 people lost their jobs.
I was eating lunch at a barbecue restaurant on 15th Street in the middle of Tuscaloosa on that day. Little did I know that just a few hours later a tornado would cut through that area filled with homes, businesses and many trees that helped Tuscaloosa earn the nickname the Druid City. The tornado leveled nearly everything I could see from that restaurant window.
Here’s how the restaurant owner, Brad McDaniel, remembers the scene: “When I walked out of the restroom that day from the tornado, I looked across Forest Lake and I thought thousands of people in Tuscaloosa were dead, because all the trees, the beautiful trees that were over there, were like twigs,” he said.
McDaniel owns Hoo’s Q, located on the same spot as his old business that was wrecked by the tornado. “I mean nothing was left, it was like literally a bomb had gone off in Tuscaloosa,” he said.
He reopened soon after the tornado in Northport, just across the Black Warrior River. “We did a temporary location; I did have some customers that would come eat with us but it just wasn’t like the location on 15th street,” he said.
Just a short time later, McDaniel closed up shop again. He came back to his old location, but this time he wasn’t part of a franchise. He opened as Hoo’s Q. “It was time for me to get out or renew it for five more years, so I decided to get out and when we reopened, I reopened under a new name,” he said.
He opened Hoo’s Q two years to the day after the storm. He says it was important to come back to 15th street, but he had to work to get his customers. “I mean I tried to get out there, but it’s just hard to let everyone know that used to come see us because I didn’t know where they were and they hadn’t seen us in two years,” McDaniel said.
McDaniel said business is growing every day and he is happy with his decision to come back.
Today, Tuscaloosa has rebuilt much of what was destroyed. However, you can still see where the tornado cut its path in some places. The city of Tuscaloosa is still figuring out how to commemorate the fifth anniversary of the 2011 tornado.
Tuscaloosa Mayor Walter Maddox had this to say about a year out from the storm: “I believe our future is even brighter," Maddox said. "But it is still a long journey; there’s going to be many bumps in the road and there is, as I tell most groups who ask, there is no easy way out of this.”
There was no easy way out for Debra Burroughs and her family business H&W Drugs. “It’s hard to see, but it says H&W Drugs East on the roof; that H &W that was there is what is in my backyard, and it was next door in the parking lot of the Schlotzsky’s next door," she said.
Debra Burroughs stands next to the sign that once stood over her family business "H&W Drugs East," before the tornado that struck Tuscaloosa, Alabama nearly five years ago. (Stan Ingold)
Burroughs showed me pictures of the business her father built back in 1964. Today the lot where the drug store stood is empty, but when you go there, you can still see the floor tiles that read “H&W Drugs.”
The floor to the former entryway for H&W Drugs.
For Burroughs, it still holds a lot of memories and the decision not to come back was a tough one. “All our customers were just an extended family and yeah, I cried a lot to try and decide whether I wanted to build back and I felt like I was letting a lot of people down. I’m sorry, but really it came down to a business decision,” she said.
And there was a lot to think about in making that decision. “With health care and all the third parties that are paying for medications and paying for things, each year the profit margin shrinks what you’re able to make on your prescriptions; there is competition to lower your front-end prices to compete with all the other big box stores that sell things at discounted prices every day,” she said.
Burroughs said she had to think of her employees as well. “The employees couldn’t stand not having a job for three or four months while all this got figured out and it was a hard decision, and I came to the decision that I would not reopen.” Burroughs is still a pharmacist, but now she works for someone else.