‘A Miracle': Former UA President Looks Back on the Tornado that Spared Campus
The University of Alabama was, for the most part, spared from significant damage when an EF-4 tornado tore through Tuscaloosa 10 years ago on April 27, 2011. A decade later, former UA President Robert Witt reflects on what it meant to be in leadership during that crisis.
In an interview with The Tuscaloosa Thread, Witt said the university had a reasonable amount of time to prepare for the storm and that because it came through Tuscaloosa during finals week, some UA students had already left Tuscaloosa and were back at home.
"The campus had faculty and staff present, and even though the majority of students were home, there are always students on campus," Witt said.
He added that the University also chose to open its storm shelters so that students, faculty and staff could seek shelter as needed and began communicating with the student body directly about the danger that was coming.
"We [opened] shelters and started getting a steady flow of communication out that provided advice about what would be the safest way to behave given what was coming," Witt said.
As the tornado approached, Witt says that he and his staff knew it was going to be bad.
"We were tracking it until the last minute when I had to go down to the basement in Rose Administration building," Witt said. "I was tracking it in my office and listening to the television, and everything I was hearing [said], 'It's bad, it's coming rapidly' and as I watched it, it appeared to be headed straight toward campus, then in the last few minutes it veered away. The campus was truly blessed [that] we escaped with virtually no damage."
The EF-4 tornado spanned more than a mile wide as it tore through the city, destroying entire neighborhoods as it bore eastward, but did not cause any long-lasting damage to DCH Regional Medical Center or the University of Alabama campus.
"When you look back at the impact of that tornado, the fact that DCH and the University came through it virtually unscathed is a miracle," Witt said.
Witt still had his work cut out for him in the aftermath, though, especially in establishing communication between students in Tuscaloosa and their families.
"One of the challenges the university [faced] as the tornado approached was a lot of our students were on their cellphones and their batteries ran down," Witt said. The tornado hit and parents were trying to reach their children to find out if they were OK, and they couldn't get through, so they called the university. We have [an] emergency backup [phone system], so they could reach us, but not their children. So we were sending our patrol cars out to the apartments and rental homes that our students were in to confirm that they were OK so we could tell parents."
Witt said the university also provided substantial aid to the city of Tuscaloosa after the storm passed.
"When something like this happens, whether it's to a city like Tuscaloosa or university, one of your challenges is mobilizing enough resources that you can begin to attack and address the problem quickly," Witt said. "So I contacted Mayor [Walt] Maddox as it became clear that Tuscaloosa had been hit [and] told him that we were basically pulling all of the university's heavy equipment, bulldozers, backhoes, trucks, all that kind of equipment and equipment operators, and we were putting them at his disposal, that I'd been in touch with our campus police chief and our police force was going to make a large percentage of its officers, particularly patrol cars, available to the city to help the city address what was going on."
Witt said that because of his strong relationship with Maddox, he was able to supply the city almost immediately with much-needed resources.
"We wanted to take every resource we had and put it at the city's disposal to help them deal with the impact of the tornado," Witt said.
The biggest changes the tornado inspired at the University involved how administrators communicate during times of crisis.
"It did cause us to take a very hard look at all of our advanced warning systems," Witt said. "We knew we were very strong in terms of being able to monitor what's coming and how bad would it be. We wanted to be sure we were equally strong at being able to reach out to our students, staff and faculty, and we were able to make some refinements there."
"The biggest single change that I can remember is, we worked to create more sites on campus [that] would be secure in that type of weather threat and make certain that we had not only more sites, but were able to get the word out to students in particular as to where those sites were and how to access them," Witt continued. "[We] do our best to help ensure that every freshman arriving on campus in the fall knows where the safe locations are and communicate that throughout the entire student body. One of the challenges when a threat like a tornado is coming is ... control of timing is out of your hands [and] in the hands of the weather, and you have got to have systems in place that let you reach your people quickly with the kind of information that can help keep them safe."
Leaders must step up to prepare as well as possible ahead of an event like the 2011 tornado, Witt said, and continue to lead responsibly in its wake.
"It's being a source of information, providing visible leadership and being the person who reassures the community, whether it's the Tuscaloosa community or the university community, that all will be well and you will have the support you need," Witt said. "An example of what that meant at the University is we knew we had a lot of staff members, particularly lower-paid staff members who lived in areas like Alberta City and the perimeter of Tuscaloosa, who had been hit very hard by the tornado, and within a matter of just a few days, almost $2 million had been raised so that we could say to our staff: 'If you have lost your home or your apartment has been destroyed, [if] you've lost your clothing and furniture and your car, you can apply to the University for financial assistance.'"
Witt also praised how Maddox handled the situation.
"Mayor Maddox put support systems in place in the city of Tuscaloosa that were so comprehensive, so visionary, and his leadership was so outstanding," he said. "Virtually every devastated area, sooner or later, Mayor Maddox and his key staff would be in that area. The message that went out to the community of Tuscaloosa is: 'The mayor understands; he is on top of it, he is fair, we are going to recover. Tuscaloosa is going to be okay.' I've been around a long time, I've seen a lot of leaders, and I've never seen anybody do a better job."
For all coverage pertaining to the 10-year anniversary of the April 27, 2011 tornadoes, click here.