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Schlotzsky's before (right) and after (left) recovering from the April 27, 2011 tornado. CW / CW FIle, Hanna Curlette, Photo Illustration / Ashley Atkinson

Samuel Yang

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By Samuel Yang | News Editor

Three years later, businesses are still returning to Tuscaloosa.

April 26, 2011, was the last Tuesday that you could drive down the heart of Tuscaloosa and see Alabama Physical Therapy and Occupation Rehab Physical Therapy, Hobby Lobby and Milo’s Hamburgers sharing a street. The next day, an EF4 tornado devastated residential areas and commercial corridors.

Today, a ride down the same street turns up familiar storefronts – Taco Casa and Krispy Kreme have set up near their original locations – but the comeback stories of businesses damaged in the tornado follow different patterns and timelines. Hobby Lobby reopened in Northport and Milo’s has been teasing about their return for months.

APTOR, however, took much less time to return than the other two estabishments. The Friday after the tornado touched down, physical therapist John Cormier met with his employees at an empty retail space up the street from where their previous location was destroyed.

“I think we can deliver physical therapy,” he said. “Ask [our active patients] how they’re doing. Let’s just connect with them. But if their life was not disrupted to the point where they still want and need physical therapy, our intention is to be delivering it to them next week.”

In the world of physical therapy, days and weeks can affect progress and health, so after making sure all of APTOR’s employees were safe, Cormier got to work recovering documents and equipment. He was at UHAUL on Thursday, which was open for business despite a lack of power. He looked at a finished space in Parkview Center early Friday morning and started moving APTOR in at 1 p.m.

The following Tuesday, they were open, a day later than they had originally planned. With the help of its employees and advisors, APTOR reopened less than a week after the tornado.

“We had people that were just committed. We worked some unconventional hours,” he said. “The motivation was we want to and need to be here for our patients, and it was only possible because we had a great group of employees that pulled together and made it happen.”

While delivering treatment, APTOR continued renovating and remodeling the space to fit their needs.

“We were kind of finishing up the space while we were delivering physical therapy out of it. It took us probably about four months to get our physical location completed,” he said. “It was a whirlwind. It was just running on adrenaline for weeks and months. It’s like starting a practice over while you’re still trying to run one.”

Small businesses that were decisive and quick, Cormier said, were more successful in their attempts to reopen. He said it ultimately took six to eight months to rebuild patient volume and a year to sort out insurance.

“It seemed like the whole community really kind of went into a holding pattern,” he said. “It wasn’t until the University started back in the fall … that people kind of got back into a little bit of a normal routine. The summer, I think, was very odd. It was just slow. I think a lot of the community as a whole got into a little bit of a funk. It took a little while for that to kind of work itself out.”

Public Outreach Coordinator for Recovery Operations Megan Brantley said many businesses could not build back immediately because of updated building codes.

“Whether you are dealing with new construction or a repair, you are working through insurance and updated building standards/development codes,” city of Tuscaloosa Director of Economic Development Brendan Moore said. “Each of those situations would be unique and likely occur on different timelines.”

In March, Mayor Walt Maddox tweeted that Milo’s Hamburgers had been shown locations. In May, the official Milo’s Hamburgers twitter account confirmed plans to return.

“Milo’s is analyzing our market for the best fit, and we are optimistic about their future in Tuscaloosa,” Moore said.

He said another area of interest and growth is East Tuscaloosa, which is rebuilding its fire station and police precinct. Also returning to East Tuscaloosa is New China Fun, known three years ago as China Fun.

Eddy Zheng and his business partner, Jim Zhu, started discussing reopening in December. After a few months, they decided it was time.

“[The] past three years was just basically recovery. [Our] house was also destroyed. Everybody just moved on finding different jobs,” he said. “Our family moved to Maryland, staying with our relatives [and] helping with their restaurant until our house was [finished].”

New China Fun will have a Mongolian grill and several new dishes, and customers who check in or like their Facebook page will receive a free egg roll. The new Facebook page already has 24 five-star reviews from previous customers who are excited about the return, which is scheduled for either Sunday or Monday.

“On behalf of our new business, we want to say thank you,” Zheng said. “It has been too long, and I know our customers from the past are desperate for us to return and get open soon.”

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