Tornado-Tortured Tuscaloosa Toughs It Out

By Greg Sitek

Local contractors form a company to help Tuscaloosa remove tornados’ aftermath and get ready for the University of Alabama’s first home game of the season-

Sights like this were not uncommon

Natural disasters have ravaged this country and others countries across the globe. People have died. The Japanese earthquake and tsunami in March of this year claimed over 23,000 people. Homes, business and communities have been destroyed. How can the destruction be measured – the number who have died; the number of buildings and homes forever removed from existence; the tons of debris generated; the days of work lost; the dollar amount of business gone; the suffering of the people directly effected?

You can’t quantify the impact; for each individual it is dramatically different. For many, when you think of losses, it’s everything … everything including loved ones, homes, cars, clothing, treasured keepsakes… everything.

Residents of Tuscaloosa and Alabama are no strangers to the nightmare and terror of being ravaged by tornados. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Storm Prediction Center, “April put Alabama ahead in strongest tornadoes.

“Fatal tornadoes in April mean Alabama has seen more of the strongest category of twister than any other state.

“The National Weather Service has upgraded Alabama’s April 27 tornado in northeast DeKalb County from the category EF-4 to EF-5. That is the highest rating on a scale used to measure tornado damage and means winds were more than 200 mph.

“The upgrade gives Alabama seven EF-5 tornadoes since 1950, when the Weather Service began keeping such records.

“The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Storm Prediction Center says Alabama had been tied with Texas, Oklahoma, Iowa and Kansas with six EF-5 tornadoes.

“The reclassified twister was one of two EF-5 storms in a swarm of more than 60 tornadoes that hit Alabama on April 27, claiming about 240 lives. Tuscaloosa was hit the hardest. Forty-six of its residents were fatally injured; hundreds of others suffered physical injuries; and thousands will never forget the day.”

Hard to believe this was someone's home only minutes before

You can’t drive anywhere in Tuscaloosa without being reminded of just how badly the city was damaged. As you drive through you have to ask yourself how is it that more lives weren’t lost.

Terry Bunn a principle of S.T.Bunn Construction says, “We have to give credit to Tuscaloosa County and city and Alabama for its warning system, otherwise more lives would have been lost.”

Terry and his brother Sonny Bunn own and operate S.T.Bunn Construction. They along with Keith Andrews president of RACON Inc. are long-time ARTBA members and active in the Alabama chapter, according to Billy Norrell, the chapter’s executive director.

“We’d been watching the weather all day,” Andrews said. “We closed up and sent everyone home around 3 PM. I was outside watching and around 4:30 you could see the clouds moving at a tremendous speed. They were black and filled with debris. We got into the shelter and stayed there until 5:20 PM.” (The Andrews have an all-concrete storm shelter build into their garage.)

Andrews stated, “We live 1.5 miles from the path of the storm. That’s as close as I ever want to get.”

Not far away, about 2 miles from the path of the tornadoes, Terry Bunn and his family were in the basement of their home. “We were listening to the radio and the sirens and when we saw the clouds of debris moving into the city we secured ourselves in the basement and stayed there until the tornadoes had passed.“

Andrews father, Benton Andrews, co-founder of RACON (the company was originally founded by Keith’s father and mother in 1976) was in Tuscaloosa in a different part of town. As soon as the tornado passed he got in his vehicle and headed for the RACON shop, which is located near the airport. He reached the shop and checked its condition. Finding that it had not been damaged, he headed into town to check on friends but couldn’t get through because the roads, all of the roads were blocked by debris. A couple of the City’s first responders saw and recognized him and asked if he could start lining up people to help. He finally was able to contact his son.

Keith Andrews had started lining up people who could get out and help. He had contacted Thompson Cat and the other equipment dealers lining up as much equipment as possible. “We got about 40 people to the major streets,” Andrews explained, “to clear passage for the emergency vehicles. We were able to buy eight or ten chainsaws because there were trees, utility poles and power lines down everywhere. Ambulances, fire trucks, rescue vehicles, even the police couldn’t get through. What we were doing was trying to move as much debris out of the way as possible.”

Power lines were a priority -- down lines had to be safely removed and new lines strung

Terry Bunn working in another section was doing the same thing – clearing as much debris as possible; he had managed to get 12 to 15 people to come out and start the endless task of clearing debris. Bunn explains, “It was really difficult getting in touch with anyone because the power was out, Internet was down and most of the cell towers had been knocked out. I finally managed to get in touch with Keith Andrews so we could start coordinating efforts.”

Both crews along with the city, county, utility crews worked through the night. The first step was to clear passage so that police and emergency vehicles could get through and so that trucks and equipment could reach critical situations. Everything was in total chaos. Cars and trucks had been catapulted into the most unlikely places along with entire houses and buildings.

Utility poles had been snapped like toothpicks, power lines were dancing in a frenzy dangerously snapping and igniting fires; ruptured water line were spewing thousands of gallons of water everywhere and broken gas lines were flooding the already toxic air with an even greater hazard.

One of the big concerns was keeping people safe and out of harms’ way,” Terry Bunn comments. “With all the lines that were down it was impossible to tell which were live. Safety under these circumstances is absolutely vital.”

Debris was collected from the curbside, sorted and then taken to a reduction site or landfill

Andrews, the Bunns and John Plott owner of John Plott Construction got together on Thursday and Friday and formed “BRP, LLC” specifically to handle Tuscaloosa’s cleanup. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, responsible for managing the cleanup of the Tuscaloosa tornados, contracted with Phillips and Jordan, Knoxville, TN, to serve as the primary contractor for the Tuscaloosa cleanup project. Phillips and Jordan contracted with BRP, LLC to manage the cleanup process on a daily basis.

Both Andrews and Bunn say, “We are working seven days a week 12 hours a day, 7 AM to 7 PM, to get this cleaned up. Phillips and Jordan were selected because this is its specialty, emergency response and clean up management. They’ve had a lot of experience with this type of work and have overall responsibility for managing the project.”

RACON and Bunn had to stopp working on Friday April 29th pending the necessary approvals and to develop an organizational plan on how to best handle this monstrous job.

A project manager and an assistant PM were selected; Tim Gilliam is the PM and Chris Poling the assistant. At the end of each day the Gilliam and Poling have a meeting with Andrews, Bunn and Plott or their representatives, to discuss the day’s progress and problems. “This meeting is critical to making sure the cleanup is moving along as it should,” says Andrews. “The first couple of days were extremely difficult.”

There were massive amounts of vegetative debris that had to be reduced in size so it could b moved

“In order to facilitate this effort,” Terry Bunn explains. “We’ve divided the cleanup area into six sections with each section having a manager. They are responsible for collection and processing the debris from their respective section. You can imagine what we’re dealing with, vegetative material and construction and demolition (C&D) debris.”

Andrews adds, “That’s the primary segregation that’s made. The vegetative is separated from the C&D or household debris. It’s hauled off to one of three processing centers that turn it into mulch. The C&D debris is hauled off to a land fill.”

Currently there are approximately 125 trucks being used to haul the debris from the roads and roadside. “Our responsibility is to remove the debris from the roads and approximately 10 feet back,” Andrews explains. “ Debris is pushed to the curb and our crews pick it up. They make a circuit covering every street at least once a week. Initially it was more frequent.”

This is the material that falls into the scope of public debris because it is on public land. The removal of materials that are on private land, like homes, shopping malls, etc., are the responsibility of the property owner. In most instances, the removal is covered by insurance. Without “right of entry” the crews are not permitted to remove debris form private property.

At the end of June BRP had removed 856,000 cubic yards of debris. Every load is tracked, inspected and evaluated by inspectors before it is dumped either at the landfill or the vegetation reduction sites. Phillips and Jordan developed a GPS tracking/recording system. After the inspector evaluates and grades the load the information is fed into the system and stored.

BRP tries to hire local contractors to do the work. Andrews points out, “We only have a couple of excavators working. Between BRP, Phillips and Jordan and the sub contractors there is probably a total of 250 people involved. Local contractors are doing the bulk of the work. We are focused on hiring Tuscaloosa contractors when possible. As long as they have the equipment, and the skills we need they get preferential treatment. If we don’t’ have anyone from Tuscaloosa we give the work to contractors that are Alabama based. We feel it’s only right.”

Andrews explains that, “some of the contractors from out of state are specialists in handling this type of work. They have the equipment needed and isn’t readily available. We need a lot of high capacity grapples and this is not a piece of equipment you normally find in this area.”

Equipment designed and rigged to handle the removal of material had to be brought in.

Equipment typically being used is demolition or scrap handling excavators, track hoes, loaders, dozers. Of course trucks are extremely important since everything has to be hauled. The intense summer heat has added to the difficulties. With temperatures hovering around 100 degrees F the workers need frequent breaks.

Terry Bunn stresses the fact, “Safety is of the utmost importance, not only to us but to the Corps.” He points out the fact that the governor’s office along with the city and county are heavily involved in the progress being made. “They’re very concerned and we’re very concerned. This is our home. We grew up in Tuscaloosa.

“Being from this immediate area we know where to go for equipment and supplies. We know most of the contractors as well and we all have one objective,” Andrews says, “We are going to get this cleaned up and ready before the first home game.” The first home game will be against Kent State on September 3, 2011.

All three of the companies that joined forces to help get Tuscaloosa back on its feet are local contractors. John Plott is a utility and residential contractor and developer.

RACON traces its beginnings to 1976 when Keith’s mother started the company that was originally called, R. M. Andrews Construction Company. Keith said that he likes to jokingly tell people that “he was conceived on the seat of a bulldozer” as a way of identifying the fact that he has been in the business all his life. The company became RACON in 1981. Its primary focus is highways and bridges and as previously noted is a longtime ARTBA member. The company recently competed 1,500 acres of site work for the new ThyssenKrupp steel plant near Mobile, Alabama. This includes an interchange providing access to the plant, the river terminal and 24 miles of road on the site. This was a $185 to $190 million project for the Tuscaloosa-based company. The overall project represents around a $5 billion investment, one of the state’s largest developments.

S.T. Bunn Sr. founded S.T. Bunn in 1937 when he acquired his first dump truck. A year later he added a second truck and grew the business hauling. In the 1940’s he got into the asphalt business and bought a plant in 1971. In 1981 he sold the business to his two sons, Sonny (S.T. Jr.) and Terry. The business has grown to include five asphalt plants and two stone rock quarries. If you drive to Tuscaloosa chances are pretty good that you will be traveling over some of the road paved by S.T. Bunn. The company is active in ARTBA.

Tuscaloosa is a proud city. The people who grew up her love it and are dedicated to its future. The contractors who formed BRP did it so that they could help their city climb from beneath the rubble; so they could help their neighbors and friends rebuild; so they could help those injured by the storm heal. When you tune into this seasons college football games and hear the Crimson Tide fans thunder “Roll Tide Roll” you’ll know that they’re cheering not only for their team but also for their city.

Editor’s note: At the end of July a local news broadcast said that the cost of clean up to the citizens of Tuscaloosa was closer to $200 million than the original estimate of $100 million…

Siege of Tuscaloosa Alabama describes my personal reactions to this horrible disaster starting minutes after it had torn the city apart. You can read the article by clicking on:

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