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Maddox, Witt discuss city past, future

University of Alabama System Chancellor Robert Witt and Mayor Walt Maddox met Monday morning to discuss the April 27 tornado./CW|Megan Smith

Taylor Holland

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In the minutes and hours that immediately followed the April 27 tornado’s devastating path through Tuscaloosa, one city leader would become the public face of recovery efforts while the other worked tirelessly behind the scenes.

Together, Tuscaloosa Mayor Walt Maddox and then-University of Alabama President Robert Witt faced unprecedented challenges from a disaster that would change the city and campus forever.

For Witt, the response began shortly after 5:30 p.m., even as the tornado continued on its path from Tuscaloosa to Birmingham. He met with the University’s Emergency Response Team and immediately made its police force available to the city.

Knowing power companies and first responders would soon be heading to Tuscaloosa from across the country, Witt and the task force opened up Bryant-Denny Stadium and the Rec Center to house the respective groups.

The school’s next move, however, came as a shock to many students. On April 28, the University sent out an email announcing the cancelation of classes and the postponement of graduation.

“We realized that the University would be one of several sources of potential pressure on the city,” Witt said. “The need to restore power is a form of pressure, as are food and water. But also the fact that we had over 31,000 students here who, if they remained in the city given the extent of the damage, would become an additional burden for the city. So we closed the University, sent the students home and postponed graduation.”

It would be Thursday morning, more than 12 hours after the storm, when Witt and Maddox first spoke. Although he was aware the campus had been spared a direct hit from the tornado, Maddox said he knew UA students had been impacted.

During the call, Witt not only offered the services of the University of Alabama Police Department to the city, but also offered housing for the homeless as well. For the long term, the city drew from the University’s resources including logistical equipment and humanitarian assistance.

“It was comforting to know that the University was there in such a powerful way for the city,” Maddox said.

While the two city leaders planned their next move, the University’s presence was felt more forcefully than either of them could have predicted.

The help even extended to meals delivered by UA fraternities and sororities to Tuscaloosa residents displaced by the storm and rescue workers. Over a four-day period, the effort, which became known as UA Greek Relief, delivered more than 50,000 hot meals.

“From my perspective, it was extraordinary,” Witt said.

Maddox said he too was moved by the role students filled following the storm, particularly when he met a recent UA graduate who was living in Washington, D.C., and drove to Tuscaloosa within hours of the storm to volunteer.

“Here’s someone who wasn’t born in Tuscaloosa, spent four years of his academic career here, and they felt such a closeness to the University, to the city, that they wanted to come back and help,” Maddox said. “At that point I realized the magnitude of the University and its response and recovery because every neighborhood I went into, every humanitarian station I visited, they were filled with University students giving in such a way that just struck me by the sheer intensity in numbers by which they were out there making a difference.”

The ability of students to draw on their skills, especially with social media, helped them to significantly contribute in helping the city organize, Witt said.

“You had, at one point, 1,400 people classified as missing, which, in most cases, should’ve created much more disruptions,” Maddox added. “But I think the fact that students were out there communicating via social media, letting people know that they were OK, finding their fellow students, in a large way, kept things calm.”

Both the city and University capitalized on their social media presence as well, tweeting updates and needs to their followers. Maddox held many press conferences to update the nation on the recovery process and warn city businesses of looters. Witt communicated by email, offering his sympathies to students and encouraging them to help those who suffered damage from the storm.

The communication and support students provided in the immediate aftermath of the storm and ever since has gone a long way in helping to erase the natural tension felt between the citizens of Tuscaloosa and students, Maddox said.

“In many neighborhoods where sometimes students probably were not considered a valuable asset in the community, it was those students who were the first one into the houses to make sure that everybody was OK,” Maddox said. “It was the students who were triaging and transporting the injured to the hospital. So, to me, those are powerful connections that have been made since April 27 that none of us are ever going to forget.”

Beyond the indelible memories of this outpouring of support from students, local residents and the nation itself, Maddox said he hasn’t had much time for reflective thoughts since April 27. Getting the city’s long-term recovery plan known as Tuscaloosa Forward in place has taken priority. Still, he was quick to note than his personal affection and connection with the city has become even deeper.

“It’s probably not the wisest administrative decision to become so close, but for me it is, it’s very personal,” Maddox said. “I’ve seen heartbreak on a scale that I never would’ve imagined and I feel the pressure and obligation to make sure that what happened to us was not some simple sacrifice; that there’s something better that will come out of this tragedy.”

For Witt, the storm reminded him of the strength of the University of Alabama family. Within a relatively short period of time, Witt said UA was able to raise more than $2.7 million because the family made the commitment that no faculty member, staff member, student or retiree who experienced loss as a result of the storm that exceeded their insurance would have to pay for it out of pocket.

“We talked with people who had literally lost everything but the clothes that they were wearing,” Witt said. “And to see them made whole I think really reinforced the sense of the University of Alabama family.”

Prior to the tornado, officials from both the city and University met every six-to-eight weeks. Moving forward, Witt said the two entities would continue working more closely than in years past.

“As a result of the tornado, we began to realize that we were no where near our full potential in making the University of Alabama a resource for the city and for the mayor,” he said. “But now we realize that for our students, working with and for the city is a valuable learning experience, but it’s also a contribution to the city.”

Witt said students’ efforts following the storm would be something he’d never forget.

“While it’s very important that we remember the students that we lost, remember the impact on our community,” Witt said. “It’s also important to remember how the University of Alabama family responded to this crisis.”

Maddox said he wanted to say thank you, first and foremost, to the students.

“There is no way that the city can ever repay its debt to the service of the students after April 27, even leading up to today,” Maddox said. “It’s also important to remember that April 27 is not what’s going to define Tuscaloosa. It’s how we’re rebuilding, it’s how we’re going to recover, that’s going to define who we are and students are going to play an important role in establishing that legacy.”

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Maddox, Witt discuss city past, future