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5 years later: Rejuvenated Tuscaloosa, Birmingham reflect on deadly tornado that turned communities upside down

Five years after a deadly tornado leveled towns, including portions of Tuscaloosa and Birmingham, Alabama, relief groups say that rebuilding communities are stronger than they were before.

The Tuscaloosa-Birmingham tornado was just one of the 62 tornadoes that occurred on April 27, 2011, according the National Weather Service office in Birmingham.

The tornado left an 80-mile-long path of destruction from rural northern Greene County to northeast of downtown Birmingham, killing 65 and injuring 1,500.

Some of the hardest-hit areas included the Cedar Crest neighborhood and the Alberta City community in Tuscaloosa.

Ellen Potts, executive director for Habitat for Humanity of Tuscaloosa, is one of the many who lived through the devastating tornado.

"While the tornado was a horrible thing, many good things have come out of that experience and I think we are a better community in the city and county of Tuscaloosa," Potts said.

Habitat for Humanity is one of the relief groups that have been part of the rebuilding efforts over the last five years.

"Much of this work is implementing long-term community recovery plans, rebuilding housing, community facilities, retail areas and public infrastructure like parks, streets and sidewalks," Gus Heard-Hughes, senior program officer of the Community Foundation of Greater Birmingham (CFGB), said.

While progress has been made over the last five years, recovery and rebuilding efforts are ongoing.

"There's still a great deal of Alberta City, the hardest-hit area of where the tornado came through, that has big, vacant spaces. There's also a lot of building that needs to happen in Tuscaloosa County to help the area recover and make it better than it was prior to the storm," Potts said.

Though the tornado tore up areas across Alabama, it has helped bring communities together.

"The tornado, as awful as it was, did for us was to help form relationships across racial and socioeconomic lines that would have never been formed otherwise," Potts said.

One of the places Habitat has been building is a street called Juanita Drive, a street that claimed 10 percent of Tuscaloosa's crime prior to the tornado, Potts stated.

But now, through Habitat, they have been able to transform Juanita Drive into a place where people want to raise a family.

"I really feel the whole Alberta community is transforming into something better than it was before," Potts added.

The CFGB has taken a statewide role in aiding disaster recovery as opposed to the typical local aid.

In the last five years, Habitat has built 56 houses, with number 57 nearly complete and another four under construction.

Potts stated that prior to the tornado, they built 47 houses in 24 years.

"Since that time, you can see our construction has exploded and a lot of that is because of the tornado," Potts said.

Of the 56 houses that were completed in the last five years, 40 or so were for tornado victims.

According to Potts, after the tornado all homes constructed by Habitat have a tornado safe room and are built to withstand 130-mph winds, much above the code in Tuscaloosa.

"For the first two or three years after the tornado, we were only building for tornado victims in the tornado zone," Potts said.

Around 18,000 volunteers, from 50 states and six continents, have contributed to this rebuilding process.

According to Heard-Hughes, the CFGB has raised funds for statewide longer-term recovery as well as worked will local Long-Term Recovery Committees (LTRCs) to ensure that funds supported unmet recovery needs of families and communities.

"The community responded with great commitment to the enormous undertaking of recovery from this disaster. The dedication of volunteers, agencies, companies, donors and so many others to meet recovery needs was amazing," Heard-Hughes said.

Through CFGB, over $3.9 million was raised to support long-term recovery in Alabama and funds helped assist close to 700 families in 28 counties.

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The CFGB hopes that one long-lasting legacy from the recovery process is the creation of a stronger framework for disaster preparedness and recovery.

"I feel we built a stronger sense of both local and statewide community through the process of recovery. To see areas like Pratt City in Birmingham and Cordova in rural Walker County, which were so devastated by the 2011 tornadoes, restored and even improved in many ways [following plans the community helped create] is inspiring," Heard-Hughes said.

"It speaks to the dedication and persistence of the community that these places have come so far, and that rebuilding still continues today," he said.