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Tornado survivors rebuild, a year later

By Rich Phillips, CNN
updated 7:10 PM EDT, Fri April 27, 2012
Construction sites, like this one at the future home of Full Moon Bar-B-Que, are commonplace in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, which is rebuilding after last year's devastating tornado. Construction sites, like this one at the future home of Full Moon Bar-B-Que, are commonplace in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, which is rebuilding after last year's devastating tornado.
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: Bells toll to remember the tornado victims
  • NEW: "The message is this: We are coming back," says a local official
  • Friday marks one year since a massive tornado hit Tuscaloosa, Alabama
  • The twister killed 53 people in Tuscaloosa on April 27, 2011

Tuscaloosa, Alabama (CNN) -- The pounding of hammers inside his home is probably the sweetest sound in the world to Tuscaloosa resident Gary Limmroth. It's the sound of progress.

One year ago, he barely made it into his basement as a massive tornado with winds up to 200 mph picked up his home, churned it into pieces and threw it all over his Forest Lake neighborhood.

"It sucked the air out of the room, like someone trying to beat on the door violently to get in, and then 60 seconds later, it was the quietest quiet you never heard," he said.

Limmroth emerged unscathed and watched as the mammoth storm continued its rampage through Tuscaloosa on April 27, 2011. The twister stayed on the ground for about six minutes, officials say. Fifty-three people were killed in the city that day.

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"It smelled like you had been inside a lumber mill: fresh cut from the houses that were destroyed, plus the trees that were just literally cut in half," Limmroth said. "It was truly eerie."

Mother-daughter team helps raise money for Tuscaloosa

The twister was part of a severe storm system that ripped through the South and Midwest that day, killing at least 327 people. It was one of the deadliest tornado outbreaks in U.S. history.

Alabama was the hardest-hit state, and Tuscaloosa was the bull's-eye of the storm. More than 5,000 homes in the city alone were damaged or destroyed, and hundreds of businesses in the area were also affected, according the West Alabama Chamber of Commerce. The storm cut a six-mile-long path through the city, destroying or damaging about 12% of it, Tuscaloosa officials say. The tornado left behind enough debris to fill the University of Alabama's football stadium five times, Mayor Walt Maddox said.

On Friday, members of the Tuscaloosa community came together to remember those they lost at a remembrance ceremony held at the university.

Bells tolled 53 times to honor each of the city's tornado victims.

The names of the dead were read aloud and pictures of them flashed on a screen -- happy glimpses into lives cut short.

The Tuscaloosa tornado was later given a rating of EF4, the second-most powerful on the Enhanced Fujita Scale, meaning it had wind speeds between 166 and 200 mph.

Today, a year later, a huge weed-filled lot now sits where one Tuscaloosa neighborhood used to be -- part of the huge mile-wide swath that the tornado cut through town at McFarland Boulevard and 15th Street. Right next to that lot is Evan Smith's newly rebuilt Krispy Kreme doughnut shop.

"I'm no weatherman, but I think we're standing in the dead center eye," Smith said.

This week, plumbers finished their work on the site of his new shop. He hopes to be back in business in the next three months.

"As bad as disasters are, a lot of people benefit from them, from easier loans, lower loans and stuff like that," Smith said. "But as far as me and this business, I'm not better off until I get the doors open again."

Tuscaloosa's recovery is more about rebuilding all the homes and businesses obliterated by last year's tornado, according to the city's mayor.

"It's about restoring lives," Maddox said. "It's about ensuring what happened here is more meaningful than just six miles of total destruction across our city. It's about building back in such a way that people are going to have confidence that we're going to have a better tomorrow."

"The message is this: We are coming back," Tuscaloosa County Probate Judge Hardy McCollum said during the Friday ceremony.

Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley also spoke, vowing to stay committed to the rebuilding efforts.

"As we observe today's anniversary, let us look ahead to the work that remains to be done for the people of Alabama," he said. "We've made a lot of progress in the last year. We still have a long way to go."

Today, a construction crew is putting the finishing touches on Gary Limmroth's new home, which has a poured concrete safe room. He hopes to sleep in his new place in July.

"It takes a while to figure out how do you want to build back, how do you want to do it. Do you want to come back? There were a lot of people across the lake that have decided they just can't take it. They couldn't be here, the constant reminder every day of seeing it."

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