Tempest-tossed in Tuscaloosa

Mother Nature was not kind to Chastain Manor in April. The 64-unit apartment community for seniors, completed by Atlanta-based multifamily owner, builder and manager TBG Residential in November, was leveled by the storm that ravaged Tuscaloosa, Ala.

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“Not one square inch of the property was untouched,” said Lane Company Regional VP Ashley Monroe, who traveled from her home in Atlanta on April 28, the day after a deadly tornado raged through, to assess the damage to the community Lane Company managed and render assistance where she could.

Monroe and her team hiked a mile to reach the property because the roads around it were closed. As they walked through the residential neighborhood adjacent to Chastain Manor, the destruction they saw increased.

Four miles from the property, where the storm had mostly spared the neighborhoods, nothing appeared any the worse for the weather. But, as they drew closer to the ravaged apartment community, they had a preview of the destruction they would find when they reached the site.

“The community around us was more and more mangled,” Monroe said. “It was as if an extremely large mouth had picked everything up, chewed it really well and spit it back out.”

“Some residential homes and businesses were unrecognizable,” she said. Trees lay on top of crushed homes, power lines were down and pieces of steel were wrapped around tree trunks, “as if it were pliable as foil,” she wrote in a description for her co-workers in Lane’s Atlanta office.

She saw people standing out on their lawns, trying to decide what to do next. Some residents could not even determine where the roofs of their homes had ended up.

“The smell of natural gas was everywhere. There was no electricity, gas, food or water available anywhere,” she said. “The hospitals were at maximum capacity and the shelters were overflowing. It truly felt like we had entered a third-world country with no resources except what we were able to carry in our backpacks,” Monroe recalled.

She was thankful that Chastain Manor was not yet fully occupied. The first residents, all in their early 60s, moved into the one- and two-bedroom apartments the month Chastain Manor was finished and the recent completion worked to Lane’s advantage. “There were only 21 occupied residences. I’m thankful we were just that far into lease-up,” she said, adding that most of the residents stayed in their apartments during the storm.

“They huddled in bathrooms and hallways. I thought everyone would evacuate, but they’re immune to storms there and decided to take a gamble and stay,” Monroe explained.

She said she was very grateful that just two storm-related deaths occurred at Chastain Manor in what the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) reported was the worst tornado outbreak since 1974, when 315 people were killed. The April storm claimed the lives of nearly 200 people in Alabama, where the majority of tornado-related deaths occurred. In Miss., 32 perished, with 33 fatalities in Tennessee, 10 in Georgia and eight in Va.

Monroe, who joined Lane Company in 2008, said she and her husband were watching TV on Wednesday night before the storm hit and she realized by 6 p.m. that Tuscaloosa was in its path. Lane has a roving maintenance team that went to Tuscaloosa that night, but could not get into the site. On Thursday morning, a member of that crew was able to reach the flattened apartments on foot and found the first body, one of two residents who died when the community was wiped out.

When Monroe arrived and was making her way down the hill near Chastain Manor, she caught her first glimpse of the community through the trees. “At that moment, the full magnitude of what was about to unfurl hit me. I realized that it was unlikely that all of our residents had made it out of their apartments alive.

“Not one square inch of that property was untouched. If you weren’t physically there, you couldn’t understand the magnitude,” she said.

For the next two days, she and her crew assisted residents and their families, most of whom had walked out of the desolated apartment community site after the storm. “All of us climbed through the rubble, trying to find family photos, medications, clothing and heirlooms. There were instances where walls, ceilings and debris literally crumbled around us,” she said, but it was worth the effort because the residents were so happy to get back the few material items that could be located and salvaged for them.

Monroe talked with all of the residents who returned to the community to search through the remnants of their former homes. They told her the storm sounded like a train rumbling through the property. “About 75 percent of residents were in their apartments when the tornado hit. They huddled in bathrooms and hallways,” she reported.

“It humbled me more than anything that’s ever happened in life,” she said of her reaction to the catastrophe and the response of the residents and their neighbors, who had lost so much in the wreckage. “To see a community without those things was heartbreaking.”

But the courage of those who survived the disaster was heartwarming, said Monroe. “We witnessed an unbelievable camaraderie and love amongst the people in the Tuscaloosa community.”

Private individuals setup roadside water stations. Boxed lunches were prepared by the local Mercedes dealership employees, who were driving around offering them to anyone who was hungry. Neighbors were helping each other move trees and volunteers had biked in to do whatever they could to help.

“Everyone was friendly, everyone was loving and there was nothing anyone had that they were not willing to share, which is the way humanity should behave every day,” she said.

And, in an experience filled with memorable moments, one stands out for Monroe. “While we were surveying each building, Donna Collins, the regional property manager, looked into what was a bedroom and saw a Bible on a dresser, completely undisturbed, even though all the dresser drawers were pulled out,” she said.

Monroe’s husband, who accompanied her to the devastated community, handed the Bible to her. “It was marked to the 23rd Psalm,” she said. “It was the single most unbelievable moment.”

Monroe met with representatives of TBG Residential on the Wednesday after the tornado. “They plan to rebuild and hope to have it built by February. They truly care about the residents and are very anxious to rebuild,” she said.