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Tuscaloosa mayor says faith helped after tornado

By Alan Blinder

Associated Press

Published: Monday, May 9 2011 2:10 a.m. MDT

Members of the Hackleburg Church of God of Prophesy hold service under a tent in front of their damaged building on Sunday, May 8, 2011 in Hackleburg, Ala. A tornado destroyed many homes and businesses when it ripped through the town on April 27, 2011.

Butch Dill, Associated Press

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Hours after a tornado devastated Tuscaloosa, Mayor Walt Maddox couldn't believe what he was looking at — whole stretches of his city just "wiped off the map."

He asked the police sergeant who was driving the SUV — a police chaplain — to pull over.

"Sergeant," he asked Chad Palmer, "will you pray for us and pray for our city?"

Palmer's prayer asked for strength, patience, protection and wisdom. Maddox said it's helped carry him in the aftermath of the April 27 tornado outbreak that pummeled this central Alabama college town, killing at least 41 people, injuring hundreds and leaving still others missing.

"From that point on, I've had this incredible amount of energy and strength," Maddox said late last week.

The Democrat has been mayor since 2005 and had been a former school system personnel director. For him, these have been long days dominated by briefings and visits to ravaged areas. Some nights, he's been able to rest only with the help of a sleep aid. When he wakes, he momentarily forgets the hurting in his city.

"For about five seconds, it just feels like another day of work," he said in an interview with The Associated Press.

Suddenly the 38-year-old Maddox had to go from being a mayor focused on economic growth to one seeking to help storm victims, restore normalcy and rebuild.

"I want to grieve," he said, "but there's just not time." He said he had not cried yet, but he'd "come close several dozen times."

For Maddox, it all began with a 4:30 a.m. call from the director of the Tuscaloosa Emergency Management Agency. There was a potential for heavy straight-line winds. That morning at the gym, he ran five miles — the last time he would get a run in for a while.

By noon, Maddox learned that the National Weather Service had handicapped the city's odds of tornado activity at 45 percent.

Only 12 days earlier, an EF-3 tornado had touched down in Tuscaloosa, damaging 20 neighborhoods and 100 buildings. At worst, Maddox feared a repeat. He was concerned city resources would be stretched too thin.

The reality was much worse.

Maddox watched the twister sow its path of destruction in real time. In his office with Palmer, Maddox tuned his television to the city's network of traffic cameras. Using a joystick, he maneuvered a camera near Interstate 359. Then, he saw the funnel.

"My heart dropped," he said. "I thought it was about to take out the Tuscaloosa Police Department," which has its headquarters near I-359.

The storm continued on its deadly path, missing the police department but destroying the emergency management agency's offices. Maddox followed it for a time, fiddling with the joystick to keep the camera pointed toward the tornado. Finally, Palmer urged the mayor to head to the basement where other city staffers were gathered. He did.

After the storm passed, Maddox scheduled a briefing for 7 p.m. But that was 90 minutes away and the mayor couldn't sit still. Finally, he told Palmer and an aide that they were going for a drive.

Traffic was snarled, and Maddox initially didn't see any damage aside from some snapped tree branches. Then he began to see the enormity of what had happened.

"In the entire expanse, it was flat," he said. He said University of Alabama students were just walking toward the college, "almost as if they were in a trance."

They kept driving.

"I was going to need help from God," he recalled thinking, before asking Palmer to pull over.

When he returned to city hall, he delivered a pep talk to his staff.

"How we conduct ourselves in the days and weeks ahead will determine how our citizens will feel about our future," he recalled saying. "We have to be calm and we have to be caring."

The city's disaster response, honed during a Federal Emergency Management Agency session two years ago, has won plaudits.

"We're going to make mistakes," he said. "But the mistakes we're going to make are from an intensity of effort."

Maddox understands city government. Before becoming mayor, he served a term on the city council.

Since the storm, Maddox's attire has been plain, often a polo shirt, cargo pants and work boots. The married father of two spends at least two hours in the affected areas every day, offering hugs and handshakes and hauling cases of water.

University President Robert Witt said Maddox has helped restore some sense of normalcy to the reeling city.

"I think his behavior in the initial hours and days after the storm did more to cause a devastated city to believe things would get better because they had a leader who would function extremely well in a crisis situation." Witt said.

Residents have praised Maddox, a Tuscaloosa native who graduated from the University of Alabama at Birmingham, where he played football for four years and won a public speaking scholarship.

Anne Stickney, who has lived in Tuscaloosa for 35 years, said she liked that Maddox was out in the community, not just working in city hall.

"He's sunburned!" she exclaimed. "You don't get sunburned sitting in your office. He's out there doing something."

Blinder is a University of Alabama student contributing to the AP's coverage of the tornadoes in the South.

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