County UA students survive tornado

Published 9:43 pm Thursday, April 28, 2011

Today, Lauren Powell and Christa Holley, as well as countless other University of Alabama students, are mourning the loss of a friend.

The two are among the estimated 50 Covington County residents who attend the university and those now beginning the recovery process following Wednesday’s tornado that devastated Tuscaloosa.

Dozens of tornadoes ripped through the South, flattening everything in its path and killing at least 250 people in six states. The state Emergency Management Agency said, as of Thursday afternoon, it had confirmed 194 deaths. That number will rise as debris is cleared and those missing but presumed dead located.

President Barack Obama is expected to visit Alabama today to view damage and meet with the governor and families devastated by the storms.

Tuscaloosa was one of the hardest areas hit. Tuscaloosa Mayor Walter Maddox said the tornado tore a streak of “utter destruction” through the city. There were at least 36 people dead in the city’s police jurisdiction, and searches continue for the missing.

Caitlin Pearce is a junior majoring in elementary education and is a university cheerleader. Her father, David Pearce, said he hasn’t been able to speak to his daughter, but had received word she was, while uninjured, was lucky to be alive.

“She and a group of friends started out in one house, but got to thinking that it wasn’t safe, so they went to another house,” Pearce said. “(The tornado) came close, they could hear it. They got in the bathroom and covered themselves with pillows.

“When it blew by, they left and went to check on the first house,” he said. “It wasn’t there any more. For whatever reason it was that made them leave that first one, I’m forever grateful. They made the right choice, and they’re alive because of it.”

It was Caitlin’s second brush with a tornado, he said.

“Just a week and a half ago, her apartment complex got hit,” he said. “It’s just…I can’t describe it.”

Lauren Powell, the daughter of Andalusia’s Roger and Cathy Powell, said she was in the hall of her dorm when the storm hit.

“We still don’t have power in the dorms,” she said. “Classes are cancelled. I’m a Phi Mu, and we have lost a Phi Mu sister from the storm. We’re just devastated.”

In addition to the lives lost, Powell and her next year roommates now face the challenge of finding housing for the summer.

“There is nothing salvageable in our house we are leasing beginning in July,” she said. “I don’t know what we’re going to do. It’s so sad.”

Tammy Holley, whose daughter Christa is a university student, said she had briefly spoken with her daughter.

“I know she’s OK,” Holley said. “There’s no power and no cell service, but somehow, one of her roommates let her borrow a phone to call home. She said they started out in one house but relocated to another that had a basement. She said when they went to see the first house, the street was just leveled. There was nothing left.”

Patty Ashworth was watching live coverage of the tornado in Tuscaloosa and sent her husband, Ruck, a message that “there’s a tornado on the ground.” Moments later, she called will a message no parent ever wants to hear: Son David’s house on First Avenue was hit. Fortunately, he and his roommate took cover in a bathtub and were not harmed.

The Ashworths went to Tuscaloosa Thursday.

“I am so humbled that my son is alive,” she said. “There are trees down all around his house. The light pole snapped and is lying in the front yard. A street over, houses are almost completely gone.”

Several windows were blown out of the house and there was heavy roof damage. Like many students, he’s looking for another place to live.

In Tuscaloosa yesterday, the mood was somber, she said. But neighbors were doing all they could to help each other and the National Guard had begun arriving to help.

“Someone came through the neighborhood passing out hotdogs,” she said.

Whitney Davidson came home to Andalusia last night.

“There’s not much than can be done right now,” she said.

She and her roommates live about two blocks from 15th Street, where the major damage occurred. They barricaded themselves in a hallway, listening to the storm and the radio.

Yesterday, they helped friends whose homes were destroyed salvage as many of their personal belongings as possible.

She was scheduled to graduate next weekend, and is waiting to hear from her professors to decide whether she’s done with school or will take finals. The University has cancelled classes, making finals optional, and has postponed graduation until August.

“Now it’s a waiting game,” she said. “I don’t even know if my teachers are all OK. So many of the students were affected and we feel so helpless.”

Sam Bush and girlfriend Tara Ward escaped the storm unscathed after hiding in a bathtub at an apartment complex near Bryant-Denney stadium; however, they did get a firsthand look at the tornado before seeking shelter.

“It looked like a black cloud coming,” Bush said. “We could see the rotation, it was throwing out stuff. That’s when we took cover.”

Bush said when it was over, everyone stood silent in shock.

“They we scattered, trying to find out about our friends,” he said. “Outside was just devastating.”