Picking up the pieces

Hackman's apartment escaped damage, but the tornado passed within about six blocks. Student areas and low-income neighborhoods were hit hard. Hackman has two friends who barricaded themselves in their pantry with mattresses, which probably saved their lives. The storm ripped the entire second floor off their home.

For Hackman, a graduate assistant in the school's recreation department, the few days following the storm were a flurry of activity. The school's recreation center was designated as an emergency shelter, and so she headed there to help. Over the coming hours, students and residents would straggle in through the door, some injured, many newly homeless. The workers did what they could, providing first aid, new clothing and a place to sleep for the night.

"It was just craziness," Hackman said. "We were all running on adrenaline for the next two days."

During all of this she had a chance to survey some of the damage. The tornado had cut a path of destruction through the city that leveled many familiar buildings. The smell of gas leaks was everywhere. Hackman's new home she was set to move in to in a few weeks was quickly condemned.

"The campus looks the exact same as it did, which is just amazing because a few blocks down it was just awful," she said.

After working almost nonstop for two days, Hackman took a few hours to use chainsaws to cut up and clear some of the felled trees in the area. As an early birthday present, her parents flew her back to Delmar for a few days of R-and-R before heading back to Tuscaloosa and her graduate assistant job.

Abaray said seeing her daughter was therapeutic, and also that she's proud she's heading back to continue helping.

"I was just proud of her. She hung in there. I'd be a basket case if I realized that people were dying and people had been killed or missing," Abaray said. "She was really able to pull herself together and spend the next couple of days pitching in."

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