Former Tuscaloosa reporter covered the aftermath of the 2011 tornado that destroyed his home

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Jamon Smith standing where his apartment used to be in Alberta. Smith was a news reporter who covered the aftermath of the tornado that hit Tuscaloosa on April 27, 2011. (Courtesy Jamon Smith)

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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. (WIAT) — If it didn’t fit in the bookbag, he didn’t need it.

That was the way Jamon Smith thought for months as he covered the aftermath of a tornado that tore through Tuscaloosa 10 years ago, destroying his home in the Alberta community and many of his possessions. For a time, the only things the former Tuscaloosa News reporter had were his bookbag, some gym clothes, a cell phone, his car and the clothes on his back.

It wasn’t until later that he realized that something was wrong.

Insurance adjustor Griffin Wells of Mobile stands in the middle of the rubble of a home in the Alberta City community of Tuscaloosa, Ala., Saturday, May 7, 2011. (AP Photo/Dave Martin)

“I was just trying to get my job done,” said Smith, who now works in the communications department at the University of Alabama. “I had tunnel vision.”

On April 27, 2011, Smith and his co-workers at The Tuscaloosa News took shelter in the basement of the building, having already heard that a tornado was coming. At the time, Smith had called his ex-wife to tell her to get out of their home at the Arlington Square Apartments in the Alberta community.

Within 15 minutes, the tornado had come and gone.

The News was quick to send all available reporters across the city to see what the damage was. Since he lived in Alberta, Smith was sent out there. Arriving in the neighborhood, Smith remembers seeing people covered in dust and blood as they walked down the street. Smith was able to get a hold of one of the residents to see what had happened.

“I asked why everyone was leaving and someone said ‘Alberta is gone,’” Smith said. “I said ‘What do you mean it’s gone?’”

Walking through Alberta, Smith saw bodies lying on the ground, a woman getting carried out on a mattress and another person trapped in a building. As he looked to get back home, Smith realized that he didn’t recognize anything around him.

“The street signs were wrapped around poles like they were made out of paper,” he said.

The remains of Arlington Square Apartments in Alberta. This is where Jamon Smith lived before a tornado destroyed it on April 27, 2011. (Courtesy Jamon Smith)

There was nothing left of Arlington Square except white rubble. Smith couldn’t even find anything that belonged to him.

With a deadline approaching, Smith talked to as many people as he could before he went back to the office to start writing the first of many stories about the tornado aftermath.

“I wrote the lede for that main story,” he said. “My editor then said ‘OK, you’re done. Go home.’ I said ‘There’s no home for me to go to.”

The newspaper quickly put Smith up in a nearby hotel where he stayed for a week.

One of the many stories Smith covered in Tuscaloosa was one man whose home had been destroyed in the tornado. Not long before, he had just paid off the mortgage on it.

“He had been there for 30 years and now, it was gone,” Smith said.

The Tuscaloosa News’ coverage of the tornado and subsequent cleanup was recognized with a Pulitzer Prize for Breaking News Reporting. Smith and his colleagues went to New York to receive the award.

Jamon Smith, center, with Gregory Moore (left), co-chair of The Pulitzer Prize Board; former News city editor Katherine Lee, and reporter Jason Morton at Columbia University while receiving the Pulitzer Prize for Breaking News Reporting. (Courtesy Jamon Smith)

“We were grateful and we had worked really hard to help people,” he said.

Smith doesn’t like to think about the tornado. For a time, Smith didn’t like driving through Alberta because it held too many sad memories for him. Even today, seeing an online video of the tornado or the damage in Tuscaloosa is enough for him to turn it off.

“It surprised me that I reacted to that,” he said. “It hits me different ways each time I look at it.”

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