Tuscaloosa Tornado Tweets Take Pulitzer Prize

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A year ago this month, a spate of ferocious spring storms claimed the lives of at least 313 people across eight southern states, making it the deadliest tornado disaster to strike the U.S. since 1974.

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A single twister in Tuscaloosa, Ala. — the worst-hit state — killed 36 people and left 83,000 others, including the local newspaper office, without power. Still, the staff of the Tuscaloosa News managed to get the story out:

“I don’t mean to overstate, but it looks like bombs went off,” tweeted Tuscaloosa News reporter Aaron Suttles at 6:24 p.m. on April 27, 2011. “Nothing left standing. Complete rubble. Cars upside down and caved in.”

Now, for their enterprising local coverage of this disaster, Suttles and the rest of the Tuscaloosa News staff have won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for breaking news reporting.

The award citation highlights the newspaper’s use of social media, including a feed of some 130 Twitter messages that chronicled the storm’s path through the city in words, photos and video.

“The tornado demonstrated to some skeptics among the news staff that there is a real need for this,” Katherine Lee, the city editor, said in an interview with The New York Times. “For a lot of our readers, this was the news they were getting.”

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The Pulitzer citation also noted the staff’s effort to help locate missing people and to continue to produce in-depth print accounts even during a 48-hour power outage at their main offices. Generators kept some computers running, but for two days they were forced to print the paper at another plant 50 miles away.

Within 18 hours of the storm strike, the staff developed an online tool (built from a simple Google document) that allowed anyone to list the name, last known location and other details about a person they were seeking or to post information on how they could be contacted. The paper also published the information in print and distributed it for free at shelters and aid stations. 

“Our hearts go out to the victims and the families who lost so much during the tragedy last year that led to this award,” Tuscaloosa News publisher Tim Thompson said. “Even though this recognition is one of the highest honors a newsroom can receive, we are ever mindful of the heartbreak that so many experienced one year ago next week.”

Photo: Damaged homes in the Magnolia Springs subdivision, Coaling, Ala., on Apr. 27, 2011. Courtesy of John Ratliff via Wikimedia Commons.