For 'Bama Students, A Somber, Sudden End Of Classes

May 3, 2011

Usually, Jerilyn Griffin would be studying for finals at this time of year. Instead she was using a large dolly to pack her things and head home on Monday afternoon.

That was true of many University of Alabama students — if they hadn't already left, they were on their way home, often with their parents help.

One of last week's devastating tornadoes slammed into Tuscaloosa, but largely spared the University of Alabama. Even though the campus itself avoided a direct hit, the storm brought the school year to an abrupt end, and emotional scars remain.

Alabama's campus would normally be bustling right now, but it is eerily quiet. The university has roughly 30,000 students. Six have been confirmed dead.

Devastation Off Campus

On Sunday, Griffin ventured out with a group of friends into some of the worst-hit neighborhoods.

"We aren't going through anybody," she says. "We're just walking in and asking people if they need help."

She just finished her sophomore year, though not in the way she'd expected:

"It's pretty bad, just whole neighborhoods leveled. And we saw search and rescue going through an apartment complex, and we saw them pull out — well, my friend saw them pull out a body. So they're still finding people. It's pretty sad."

In Tuscaloosa County, at least 45 people have died, and the mayor of Tuscaloosa estimated the damage at as much as $100 million.

The university has ended the school year early and pushed graduation back to August. Many students, staff and professors live in the nearby neighborhoods that were devastated by the storm.

Jerilyn Griffin's mother Michelle says she's thankful that the University of Alabama's campus was spared. She drove her daughter back to Huntsville, Ala., on Monday with the help of her dad.

They'll be dealing with more of the same there — Huntsville was also hit hard last week.

"I just want to say thank you God that everybody on the campus is okay. I'm so, so sorry about the losses of those that have died throughout Alabama and Tennessee and throughout the Southern States."

"And Rolltide!" she adds — it's the famous chant of the university's football team, the Crimson Tide, and has been a rallying cry in this Southern college town for the past week.

The Game Goes On

Talaya Owens is on the university's women's track team, which decided at the last minute to attend a key track meet in Des Moines last weekend.

It was a tough call: eleven of the team's athletes were displaced. The team didn't do quite as well as they'd hoped — they were tired, stressed out and their flight was so late they barely made the meet. But the thousands gathered cheered them like they were the home team.

"I must have gotten — and I lost count — 20 or 30 hugs as I was trying to get over to Bekah to coach her. The announcer was phenomenal, he put me in tears three times," says Coach Sandy Fowler.

Bekah Hoppis lost her home just days before the meet. Things have been tough for Owens as well. The tornado hit her off-campus home, shattering the windows just as she and a roommate took shelter in a first-floor hallway.

The cheers at the meet eased the pain, and helped her and three teammates win the 4x100 hurdles.

"It was amazing to just know that these people was worried so much about us, you know, little old Tuscaloosa, in Alabama, Owens says. "And how they announced us just brought tears to our eyes. People were on their feet, like thousands of people in the stands."

The team got some good news Monday afternoon: even though the campus is shutting down, the track team's season will continue. The university has decided that the sports seasons won't end early because of this tragedy. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit