“By the time federal resources get here, we’ll already have this mess cleaned up”.
That quote, from our tow truck driver (story to come) who was paraphrasing the Alabama Governor, speaks to what we saw on the ground in Alabama. Coming into Alabama via Arkansas and Mississippi, I wasn’t sure what chaos to expect, but I was sure it would be a chaotic scene of destruction. I thought that roads might be closed, power lines might be dangling, and we could be left searching for clean water and safe places to stay. We had come from Vilonia Arkansas, which had been hit by an F2 tornado and was struggling to organize disaster relief and reach out to all of the residents who had been affected. In Alabama, they had experienced F5 tornados and had Volunteer Reception Centers open in 9 different counties and were working to mobilize thousands of volunteers in response. I had expected to face chaos and operate in survival mode. Instead, we found a well organized response which made it easy to get involved and many areas of northern Alabama that were getting back to business as usual.
That said, the destruction in Alabama is unimaginable. We went through Tuscumbia, Phil Campbell, Hackleburg, Natural Bridge, William Bankhead National Forest, Hartselle, Guntersville, Grant, and Huntsville. Almost all of those areas had experienced damage from the tornados, ranging from basic tree damage and power outages to complete leveling. Hackleburg was the worst hit of the region we visited. In this town of under 2,000 people there did not appear to be a single building that was still safe to use. They had the disaster center set up under tents. Instead of trees being snapped in two, they were actually lifted clear out of the ground or had been completely stripped of their branches. This small town lost 29 residents. It’s a safe assumption that everyone in town knew someone closely who was killed. Unlike in Guntersville or Vilonia or other towns we visited, the kids were not going back to school this week. There are no schools to go back to. The elementary, middle, and high school in Hackleburg were destroyed.
Alabama is strong and has a lot of great people and resources. However, the statement about having the mess cleaned up before outside help arrives is a bit too hopeful for many areas. Cities and towns like Hackleburg, Phil Campbell, and Tuscaloosa need our help. Most of all they need money and man power. You can also support Alabama by coming to visit and spending your money locally. We loved exploring the natural landscape of northern Alabama. There are plenty of hotels and restaurants that are still open for business. You can travel safely in the area and either avoid the worst affected areas or make it a point to go in and give a day or two of your labor.
We started out by reporting to the Volunteer Reception Center in Tuscumbia. Unfortunately it was late in the day and they had stopped placing people. They were able to get us the information about Phil Campbell and Hackleburg so that we could volunteer the next day. We reported to the Phil Campbell Rescue Squad in the morning and were sent out to the residence of an elderly woman who was currently in the hospital. We learned from family and neighbors that the woman had actually been in the hospital having surgery the morning that the tornado hit. It was fortunate, since the bed where she would have laid had been lifted up by the tornado after it took the room in which it sat. If she had been alone in the house or unable to get to safety, she would have surely faced a frightening death. We sifted through the debris from the sun room and laundry room which had been ripped off the foundation and tossed into the yard. There were roof shingles and parts of the house scattered throughout the fields beyond her yard. Amongst the wood and nails and tree branches were crayons, fake flowers, and children’s portraits. We were assigned to remove debris, but really we were sorting out the artifacts of a person’s life and helping to make sure the most vital pieces were saved.
After Phil Campbell, we camped and hiked our way across the state to Guntersville, a beautiful resort town surrounded by rivers and lakes. Again we reported to the Volunteer Reception Center and were then assigned to help sort donations and prepare food boxes at the Salvation Army donation center. The staff member in charge of the donation center was very grateful for our help. She normally worked a register at the Salvation Army thrift store, but had been “promoted” to running this donation center as senior staff were pulled to help out in the more devastated regions. To her credit, she was able to bring in one of the regular long term volunteers from a Salvation Army Food Bank to organize the food box effort. As soon as that woman, Babs, arrived, we really started working hard, unloading donations, shelving, organizing, and assembling food boxes that would feed a family of two or four for a few days. The need was clear with a line out the door. This area had experienced 11 days without power, so even families who hadn’t lost their homes were sometimes in need of additional food assistance.
The residents of Alabama are a proud and industrious group. They know how to rally, mobilize, and care for one another. There are boots on the ground and chainsaws in hand in every affected area. The day we volunteered in Phil Campbell, the local ABC affiliate and HandsOn Birmingham brought over 200 volunteers into Hackleburg to assist (which is why we went just down the road to Phil Campbell). In Phil Campbell and Guntersville, where we volunteered, we worked side by side with Alabamans from around the state. They were surprised to find out we were from Virginia, but welcomed our assistance. It was easy to register as a volunteer and be put to work.
If you want to help, here are the best places to start:
- Report to a Volunteer Reception Center – this list is updated weekly
- Register through the Alabama state volunteer office to get updates on specific volunteer needs
- Get connected through HandsOn Birmingham (centrally located they are busing volunteers to other regions as well as serving in Birmingham)
- Give directly to Hackleburg through this grassroots group: Hackleburg Helping Hands
- It also always helps to donate blood locally, give healthy food to your local food bank, or get trained in disaster preparedness