It was a birthday that Tyra Hilliard will never forget.
On April 27, one of the most powerful tornadoes in U.S. history hit Tuscaloosa, Ala., the city where Hilliard, PhD, CMP, works as an associate professor at the University of Alabama. Classified as a 5 on the Enhanced Fujita scale, the most powerful possible classification, the tornado had winds of about 200 miles per hour and stretched a mile wide. It was among the largest twisters from a system that produced a reported 211 tornadoes across Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, and Tennessee, and caused the deaths of at least 350 people.
In Tuscaloosa, where Hilliard teaches meeting and convention planning courses for UA’s Restaurant, Hotel, and Meeting Management program, the tornado sirens went off at 3:40 p.m., and classes were canceled. But by that time, Hilliard was already home.
“Our son is in university daycare and, as a precautionary measure, all parents were asked to pick up their children at noon that day,” said Hilliard. “I made the decision to cancel my 3 p.m. class based on the severity of the tornado warnings. I got my son and came home, about five miles from campus.”
The storm hit shortly after 5 p.m. “We waited it out in our laundry room—me, my husband, our 18-month-old son, three cats, and a dog.” It also happened to be Hilliard’s birthday.
“We thought we had dodged a bullet because there was no damage to our house or neighborhood,” she said. But Hilliard soon learned the extent of the damage via Twitter, since phone service was out throughout the region. “It was shocking.”
The tornado just missed the university, so it sustained no structural damage. But just a few blocks from campus, it struck apartment complexes that housed off-campus students, said Hilliard. Six students from UA died in the storm. School was closed for the rest of the week, and finals were canceled. Graduation, which would have taken place on May 7, has been rescheduled for August 6.
All 450 students in the RHM program survived, but some were displaced. One meeting planning student, whose home was destroyed, is staying at the hotel where he works until alternate accommodations can be found. Some students stayed for a week or more volunteering to help in the aftermath. Others went home to their parents, but came back to. “I was very proud of the students,” Hilliard said. “This is a tight-knit community, both on campus and off campus. The students have rallied, and it has only intensified their pride in their school and their commitment to the city and each other,” she said. “The city is damaged, but strong and united,” she added. And it will be business as usual at the university by the fall.
To assist students, UA Acts of Kindness Fund. It is also putting on a charity event, with donations coming in from fashion design companies Alfred Dunner and Tibi. Alfred Dunner, owned by David and Patti Aresty, is donating 20,000 pieces of clothing for women who lost everything in the storm. Tibi, owned by Amy Smilovic, is also donating clothing. Students from the RHM program will help to staff the June 8–10 event. The school is working on getting further donations., and staff affected by the tornado, the school has set up the