Tuscaloosa Councilman Kip Tyner talks with a family in Alberta about damage… (Michelle Lepianka Carter,…)
Reporting from Tuscaloosa, Ala. — The volunteer weaved through the bustling tornado relief camp with its mountains of water bottles and donated clothes, trying to reach the tall, rubicund, red-haired man, the one incongruously dapper amid the twisted metal, the one in the loafers and tie and collared dress shirt — the one who had become the city councilman representing disasterville.
"Hey, Kip, I need your help."
The problem was portable toilets, overflowing.
The red-faced man found a number on the side of a john and punched it in his cell. "This is Councilman Kip Tyner," he said. "Listen, I need your help…"
A woman approached in a T-shirt soiled by the struggle: "Hey, Kip."
Then came an elderly man, his face creased with worry: "Hey, Kip."
For Kip Tyner, revitalizing Tuscaloosa's downtrodden Alberta neighborhood has been the great mission of his adult life.
He was born and raised in this modest area just east of the University of Alabama. It's the place where his family taught him how to love amid the racial turbulence of the 20th century South. It's the neighborhood Tyner has represented on the City Council for 14 years, a place that had been on the upswing.
Then the tornadoes hit April 27, leveling block after block of houses, ripping scores of once handsome trees from the earth. Now, Tyner has a new mission, rebuilding Alberta, and residents are increasingly turning to the man who fought for the neighborhood when some others just ignored it. "Hey, Kip."
The woman in the soiled T-shirt was close to tears. He gripped her by the shoulder and pulled her close.
"We just so messed up," she said. "We ain't got no lights on Second Street East. And they breaking in in our neighborhood."
The elderly man asked if he could he borrow Tyner's cellphone to call his boss. Tyner handed it over.
A heavyset young woman approached, one arm grasping a plastic grocery bag, the other hanging in a sling.
"Did you hurt your arm in the storm?" he asked.
"Yes sir," she replied. "But how you doing, Mr. Tyner?"
It has been better. The tornadoes that killed at least 340 people across the Southeast claimed 41 lives in Tuscaloosa. Nine of them he counted as friends. His own house was beaten to hell.
"It's like a member of the family died; Alberta's so ingrained in me," he said on a recent Monday morning. For five days he had been out here, listening and helping and hugging — even in better times, Tyner is a big hugger. By now, he had developed a hacking cough and his face was burned the color of a jar of pickled eggs.
"But the more you hear the stories, the more you can't stay away," he said. "I think it's important that people see me out here."
When Tyner was a child, Alberta was a prestigious address. It was also segregated. Tyner, 55, remembers when African Americans lived in an area known as the "colored quarters."
"Some people," he said, "called it worse than that."
He was in fifth grade when the first two black students arrived at his school. One of them, Alma Dykes, still works on his election campaigns.
Growing up white in Tuscaloosa — where segregationist Gov. George Wallace made his infamous "stand in the schoolhouse door" to prevent integration at the university — Tyner heard a different gospel from his grandfather.
"You treat the colored man just like you would your own family," he would tell the boy.
In 1966, Tyner's mother worked on the gubernatorial campaign of then-Atty. Gen. Richmond Flowers, a moderate on race relations who was running against Wallace's wife, Lurleen. Flowers lost, and Tyner remembers coming home one night to their little brick house in Alberta, astonished by the little cross burning in the yard.
As more blacks moved into Alberta, more whites moved out, though some, like his parents and grandparents, stuck around.
Tyner went to high school and college in Tuscaloosa, leaving only briefly to work for the late John Sparkman, a Democratic senator, in Washington. He returned home to become a TV weatherman — Good ol' Kip, with his double-breasted suits and Clark Gable moustache and his weekly forecast at 10.
The station was bought out, the owners moved it to the Birmingham suburbs, but Tyner stayed in Tuscaloosa. He started up a daily talk show on cable, which provides most of his income. He decided to run for office.
The heart of his 5th District was majority-black Alberta, by then plagued with crack dealers and prostitutes and neglected Section 8 rental homes.
But Tyner knew it was also full of black people who wanted something better and who knew his face and his heart.
"Kip's not white, he's black," Steve W. Brown, a Tuscaloosa stand-up comedian, has been known to say. "He's just high, high, high yellow."
Tyner took office in 1997, and began lobbying for a major beautification program for University Boulevard, the main drag.