From tornadoes to mental health to immigration, here are some of the important stories in West Alabama in 2011:
April 27 tornado
The forecast for the day was stormy, but few people expected the level of devastation that the EF4 tornado left in its wake. In all, the city estimated a total of 53 people died as a result of the tornado, more than 7,000 homes were damaged or destroyed and more than 5,000 buildings were destroyed or heavily damaged.
The disaster was one of the most severe in the United States in 2011, with destruction and deaths across five states. Few Southern states emerged intact. Emergency management officials estimated 62 tornadoes did $1.1 billion in total damage and left 10 million cubic yards of debris.
While small towns such as Phil Campbell and Cullman were hit hard, it was Tuscaloosa that became a worldwide symbol of the worst of the storm. President Barack Obama came to Tuscaloosa two days after the storm, pledging federal help. Celebrities from Charlie Sheen to Lance Bass arrived to lend a hand, and musical groups that had been booked long in advance to play the new Tuscaloosa Amphitheater donated thousands of dollars in fees to the recovery effort.
The city benefited from thousands of volunteers who arrived from across the country to help out, and thousands of dollars in donations from businesses and individuals.
When the EF4 twister destroyed 12 percent of the city in less than six minutes, it destroyed, damaged or otherwise affected more than 5,300 homes and almost 360 businesses.
A spirit to rebuild and return sprung forth almost immediately from the city's residents and business owners, but there was an estimated 1.5 million cubic yards of debris that had to be cleared before any new construction could really begin. Meanwhile, residents and property owners were contributing to a process that would influence just how the rebuilt areas of Tuscaloosa would look once construction and rebuilding efforts began in earnest.
The Tuscaloosa Forward task force, formed by an executive order from Mayor Walt Maddox just days after the storm struck, held its first public meeting on June 16 to begin hammering out ideas on which would types of buildings and businesses would — and would not — be allowed within the 5.9-mile tornado recovery path.
Within the first six months since the storm, City Hall had issued almost 4,100 building permits — more than 3,400 of which were directly related to the disaster — for homes and businesses. The total issued for homes and businesses dwindled with each passing month, but city officials still were signing permits for new construction or repairs as 2011 came to an end.
In February, voters in Tuscaloosa overwhelmingly approved legalizing the sale of alcohol on Sundays, after a decade of attempts by city officials to bring the issue to a vote. Nearly 78 percent of voters voted in favor of the measure, which allows alcohol to be sold between noon and 9:30 p.m.
Bars, restaurants and liquor stores reported that the steady stream of customers resembled a UA football game-day crowd on March 6, the first Sunday when sales were allowed. Northport enacted the same law after a special election held in August, with 55 percent of voters in favor of Sunday sales.
Some attributed the passage of the law in Tuscaloosa to high voter turnout by University of Alabama students. People who campaigned heavily for its passage included elected officials and business leaders working in the tourism and hospitality industries, who said Sunday sales would be a boost to the economy.
“The people spoke, and they want to see our businesses succeed,” Northport Mayor Bobby Herndon said after the results were reported. “We are going to take this vote tonight and expand our horizons as far as new business recruitment.”
On the same day as the Northport referendum, 61 percent of voters in Tuscaloosa County overwhelmingly rejected Sunday sales.
“I didn't ever think it had much of a chance,” Probate Judge Hardy McCollum said at the time. “The rural citizens, in my opinion, didn't want to disturb their lifestyle in their community.”
The referendum in Tuscaloosa came after years of attempts to get legislation passed in the Alabama Legislature that would allow for a vote to be called by the City Council. A bill sponsored by Tuscaloosa Democratic Rep. Chris England was finally approved in 2010 that allowed the council to call for the vote.
After an eight-year gestation period, the Tuscaloosa Amphitheater opened on April 1.
The plans for the venue began in summer 2003 as part of the city's riverfront master plan, with the amphitheater undergoing several design changes. The finished product features about 7,500 seats.
In its first season, the amphitheater hosted 17 concerts, higher than its announced goal of six to 10 per year, featuring a diverse array of artists including Steely Dan, Patti LaBelle, the O'Jays, Widespread Panic, Alabama, ZZ Top, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Garrison Keillor, the Avett Brothers, Neko Case and My Morning Jacket.
The April 27 tornado brought out the civic spirit in many musicians, including Kenny Chesney, who donated hundreds of thousands of dollars from his show in May, and bands such as Widespread Panic, My Morning Jacket and others donated portions of their take to the city. Country superstar band Alabama reunited for its first full concert in seven years, raising $169,467 for the City of Tuscaloosa Storm Recovery Fund. The amphitheater's kitchens also played a role, serving city workers after the tornado.
The amphitheater also found space and time to play host to Deontay Wilder's boxing match, the triathlon, the Mayor's Cup race, Community Conversations and other nonprofit events.
The city expects to break even or even make a small profit from the first season, after all accounting is done.
In November, industry publication Pollstar nominated The Tuscaloosa Amphitheater one of the best new venues in the country, competing with other venues in Orlando, Austin, Texas and Raleigh, N.C.
Schools in turmoil
It was a tumultuous year for K-12 education in Tuscaloosa County in 2011.
The top leadership of both the Tuscaloosa city and county school systems changed.
In the Tuscaloosa City School System, Joyce Levey resigned as superintendent and assistant superintendents Margaret O'Neil and Dorothy Richardson retired.
Paul McKendrick of Lynchburg, Va., was hired as the new superintendent of the system.
In the Tuscaloosa County School System, both Superintendent Frank Costanzo and Deputy Superintendent Barbara Spencer announced their retirements at the end of the year. Spencer has already been replaced by Walter Davie, but a new superintendent hasn't been found.
Partlow Center closes
The Alabama Department of Mental Health announced plans in March to close the 88-year-old W.D. Partlow Developmental Center in Tuscaloosa. The state said the operational costs to keep Partlow open were exorbitant, but also that the residents of Partlow, who have intellectual disabilities, should live in community-based settings.
Closing Partlow was an unpopular decision with local officials and some legislators because of the loss of state jobs and fears that the residents would end up in the criminal justice system. Some relatives and guardians of Partlow also spoke out against its closure and said their loved ones wouldn't get adequate care outside of an institutional setting.
A lawsuit seeking to keep Partlow open was filed, but dismissed on Oct. 31.
Originally, the state sought to close the facility by Sept. 30, but that was pushed back to Nov. 30. The facility officially closed its doors Dec. 28.
The Partlow site, which is along University Boulevard in Alberta, will be the home of the new Bryce Hospital, which is under construction.
When Mercedes-Benz U.S. International in Vance began cutting production and reducing its work force in 2008, it was the first evidence that the anchor of the Tuscaloosa area economy should not be taken for granted. Until then, nothing but good economic news had emanated from the automotive assembly plant, which opened in 1997.
Even a storied, established automaker like Mercedes was not immune to the Great Recession. Demand for its luxury vehicles dropped and the Vance work force was cut nearly in half from a peak of about 4,000 employees. But the good news resumed in late 2009 with the announcement that the plant that launched the automotive industry in Alabama would produce the C-Class sedan, one of Mercedes' top-selling models. In 2010, the Vance plant began adding temporary workers and gradually increasing production.
In 2011, however, the plant rebounded with a vengeance.
Dieter Zetsche, chairman of Daimler AG, Mercedes' parent company, announced in July that Mercedes would invest more than $2 billion in its Vance operations over the next few years to accommodate the C-Class and other future production. Three months later, MBUSI president and CEO Markus Schaefer announced that the plant would add a fifth vehicle to its production line-up. Then, earlier this month, an auto industry publication reported that Mercedes would add a third worker shift in Vance this summer as it increases vehicle production by 30 percent this year compared to 2011. The plant expects to make 185,900 vehicles in 2012, exceeding pre-recession volume, after dipping to just over 100,000 in 2009.
The projected increase in production does not include the C-Class or the unnamed fifth vehicle. The plant is now the sole maker of the mid-size M-Class sport utility vehicle, the R-Class crossover vehicle and the full-size GL-Class SUV. It will add the C-Class in 2014 and the fifth model in 2015, and Schaefer said annual production at the plant eventually could reach 250,000 units.
Mercedes also will hire 1,000 workers in connection with production of the C-Class and the fifth vehicle will mean another 400 jobs, bringing employment in Vance to 4,200. The plant now employs 2,800.
Nearly lost in the spate of expansion and production announcements in 2011 was the unveiling of the third generation of the M-Class, the first model produced in Vance. Demand for the vehicle has been high.
The economic impact of Mercedes' growth will ripple throughout West Alabama and the state. Several automotive suppliers in the Tuscaloosa area already have announced plans to expand to serve the Vance plant, and new suppliers are expected to locate near the plant, resulting in thousands of new jobs.
Widely billed as the toughest immigration law in the country, Alabama's new law was signed by Gov. Robert Bentley in June. The law, controversial even before it went into effect for its wide-ranging restrictions, was decried by a variety of groups and was the subject of lawsuits filed by the Obama administration, civil liberties organizations, immigrant rights groups and religious organizations that said it was unconstitutional and unfairly targeted Hispanics for harassment. Among its more controversial sections were requirements that public schools collect information on the immigration status of students, allowed private lawsuits against public officials to compel them to enforce the law or comply with federal law, made public postsecondary education off-limits to illegal immigrants, and required illegal immigrants to carry registration documents.
Some in the business community also criticized the law for driving away a large number of their work force as many Hispanics fled the state for fear of being arrested. In November, the law came under fire again after two incidents in which foreign auto executives were stopped while driving and arrested or cited for not having registration documents.
Sections of the law took effect in late September amid court challenges, but other parts were blocked by federal courts in response to the lawsuits.
By December, the fallout from the law had led Democratic legislators to call for the law to be scrapped entirely, while some Republican legislators acknowledged that the law should be altered.
Bentley takes office
Longtime Tuscaloosa dermatologist Robert Bentley took the oath of office in Montgomery as Alabama's 53rd governor on Jan. 17.
The Republican defeated then-agriculture commissioner Ron Sparks, campaigning on the slogan “Alabama needs a doctor” and promising not to draw a salary until the state's unemployment level had dropped substantially.
With the GOP holding majorities in the state Legislature for the first time in 136 years, the former two-term member of the Alabama House of Representatives presided over the passage of the party's “Handshake with Alabama” agenda.
Included in that agenda was HB56, an immigration bill touted as the toughest in the nation. Bentley praised the bill's passage in June, but in December he admitted the bill should be retooled in the wake of a federal court challenge and public criticism of the law's stricter measures.
The Legislature's revamping of the state's ethics law also prompted Bentley to ask for an exemption for teachers in December after confusion arose over how much money students should be allowed to spend on gifts for their instructors.
Bentley provided calm leadership in the aftermath of the devastation of the April 27 tornadoes, which killed 238 people in the state. Bentley established a statewide fund to help with debris removal, and coordinated relief efforts with insurance companies, the Red Cross and state and federal emergency management agencies.
Alabama goes to BCS
University of Alabama football coach Nick Saban began 2011 figuring out how to replace Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram, star receiver Julio Jones and top pass rusher Marcell Dareus, all of whom were chosen in the first round of the NFL Draft.
After blowing out Saban’s alma mater, Kent State, in the September home opener at Bryant-Denny Stadium, the Tide cruised to an 8-0 record that included road wins over Penn State and Florida, along with home victories over SEC rivals Arkansas and Tennessee. The Tide’s rise to a No. 2 national ranking set up a much-hyped “Game of the Century” match up with the top-ranked LSU Tigers on Nov. 5 in Tuscaloosa.
As a national television audience watched on CBS, the defenses dominated a tense game, with Tigers prevailing in overtime by a 9-6 score.
Alabama got right back in the hunt for a national championship a couple of weeks later when the Iowa State Cyclones upset the team that had replaced the Tide at No. 2, the Oklahoma State Cowboys.