Brian Oliu Internet Presence Ya heard?


Alabama Runs This


I started writing this from the Tuscaloosa Public Library, as there is power here and rumors of the chance of Internet, although the network is certainly overloaded to the point where no one is able to get on.  Regardless of this, everyone seems to be in relatively good spirits and there is a lot of information being passed around:  a student just came in with a full-on sunburn telling the head librarian that he’s been out doing search and rescue all day, whispers of classes and finals being canceled are being tossed back and forth.  Myself and my roommate Barry are camped on the second floor, in between volumes of Poetry Criticism and, completely unbeknownst to me until I looked around, the geography section, which has ten or so books on Alabama staring at me at eye-level, with such titles as ‘Tuscaloosa:  Yesterday, Today & Tomorrow’, and ‘Tuscaloosa:  Centennial Progress, Millennial Hopes”.  One book, simply titled “Tuscaloosa” starts with an introduction that states “Tuscaloosa is an old name.  It is the name of a county older than the state of which it is a part:  the name of a city, one of the oldest in west Alabama; and, in translation, the name of a large river that flows through the Appalachians to the broad floodplain and fertile lowlands to the south.”  It’s a good name—a strange one that is fun to say:  one can draw out the “oooo” sound for as long as one wants to, four syllables, an air of pageantry anytime anyone says the name if they’re not from Alabama; you should hear my Catalan grandmother pronounce it—it’s adorable.

It’s also where I have lived, worked, and wrote for the past six years, made art, made friends, made mistakes, always making.  At some point, the town was called “Tuskaloosa”, but there was an executive decision at some point to drop the “K”, perhaps it made the town sound too stammering, too unsure of itself.  There are some old buildings in Alberta City that still had signs that had the “K” still in the name.  Those buildings are gone now.

Being without power and minimal internet, I haven’t seen the footage or the reports—I’ve seen the video of the tornado looming over Bryant-Denny stadium shot from a few blocks away from my house.  I’ve seen the video of the (incredibly foolish) guy shooting the tornado as it crept over Midtown Village from the mall parking lot, driving sporadically and swallowing “Oh my Gods”.  To be fair, I’ve been avoiding it as much as possible—I can’t handle this stuff.  I’ve thrown up every day since the storm and I have a giant knot in my stomach at all times.

My exposure has been minimal:  my street was relatively unscathed, although a storm earlier in the day put a tree through the carport across the street and crushed two SUVs.  I spent the day watching the Barcelona-RM game and then switched over to coverage—as the image of the tornado from the AmSouth building started to creep closer, I started to get further away from the television:  at first, I was on the couch, then to the kitchen, and then when the power went out, I made my way to the hallway where I closed all of the doors and sat in the dark, furiously checking my phone.  The first thing I am thankful for is Verizon (my uncle works on the towers out in California, so there’s an extra amount of pride there), and I am thankful for Twitter, which allowed me to track the storm and the damage that it had done—it told me it was safe to come out, that it was not safe for others, that there was work to be done.  It has continued to provide information:  who needs help and where, what items are needed, how to contact others.

I have prided myself in my love of information:  my friend Jeremy joked that “information is my hobby” and my need to know everything often dominates my day—current events, random facts, information about place.  Before I moved to Tuscaloosa, I researched everything about it—average rainfall, the most popular major at the University, the birthplace of the backup left tackle.  In a way, it helped me explain my move; I was scared and not ready to pack everything up and move South, a place that I had never been to and simply heard about—I was set to move to Boston or Pittsburgh when the offer from Alabama came in.  I spent my day at work researching:  do they have a record store, what bars are down there, is there anything?  That was six years ago.

And so, that’s what I’ve been doing:  assembling information and passing it on.  Finding out where folks in the English Department are and what state their lives are in.  Contacting students and former students.  Just passing everything on.  Barry & I have been hosting dinners at our house the past couple of nights and assembling folks together—just to have all of our friends in one place is a great comfort.  I have cooked more pasta in the past two days than I have in my entire life.  Carl & Ginger came down from Birmingham with tons of food and produce and we are incredibly thankful for their generosity.

My friends have been amazing: heading down into the Forest Lake & Alberta City areas (the two hardest hit spots) and helping out however they can—my friend Farren recounted a story of being thrown a giant log by a Marine and tossing it on the pile.  The Marine realized what he had done and said “you’re pretty good for a girl”.  We are all pretty good for what we are—of this I am certain.  In fact, I would say we are all better than what we are at this moment.

It is bad down here.  There is no sugar-coating that.  But everyday things get better—our Mayor has done an incredible job, and the local response has been great—volunteers outnumber homeowners two-to-one.  A call goes out for volunteers and in less than an hour, a message goes out saying that they’re at capacity and to head to another spot to help out.  It has been impressive and inspiring.  The response from outside of Tuscaloosa has been great as well—I am proud of our President for reacting so quickly and coming down here as soon as possible.  Brian Williams was supposed to cover the Royal Wedding and hopped on a flight to Alabama from London in order to help.  We need all of the help we can get, but we are not waiting for it.  Reports are that the National Guard is a bit overwhelmed with where to step in as everyone is working their asses off.  I hope and believe that this will continue well into the summer and as long as we are needed.

I started writing this as a way to thank everyone who has offered their support and their thoughts and prayers, especially those in the writing community.  People I've never met, editors, publishers, other writers, people I've said hello to at AWP once have been e-mailing me nonstop asking for ways to help, whether it's send care packages or wondering where they can donate food/money/etc.  It is all greatly appreciated and we are indebted to you.  I am assembling an eBook of writing about Tuscaloosa where people can download it and make a donation.  I have always had a great amount of pride in my town and the people in it, especially the quality of work that is coming forth from it.  It is amazing to witness and I am proud—details forthcoming, but it should be assembled by next week.  I hope that Tuscaloosa folks will contribute and everyone else will give a donation.

For those who want to help, this website has a great list of places where people outside of Tuscaloosa can donate:

Furthermore, the Red Cross will be taking over operations in the coming weeks, so any help you can provide them will certainly help us down here.

Commonly, I hear “You live in Alabama?  Why?” from folks up north.  The effort that has been put forward during these past few days is why.  Tuscaloosa has given me more than I can ever repay it for, and now that it needs my help, I am trying the best that I can.  One of the jokes I heard a lot when I first moved to Alabama is “You’re studying writing in Alabama?  Do they even know how to write?”  The short answer is yes: they do know how to write.  They know how to do a lot of things.  They know how to come together.  They know how to love.  They know how to rebuild.

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