Nothing has broken my heart more than the devastation that remains after a tornado last week ripped through my hometown, destroying homes, schools, businesses and lives.
Tuscaloosa, Ala., is no stranger to bad weather or tornadoes. In the time that I lived there, I’d been through four.
Areas of my hometown and its outskirts have been horribly affected in the past, but nothing compared to this.
Unable to sit on my hands, I went back Saturday to do whatever I could to help. I also went to wrap my arms around those I love, though I’d already talked to them on the phone and knew they were OK.
I didn’t have time to see everyone, but I’ve never been so happy to lay my eyes on the faces of my parents, my Aunt Kristy, some of my cousins and old friends. The battle cry of “Roll Tide” has never sounded so sweet.
The countless pictures and video footage of what had happened in no way prepared me for what I saw or the stories I heard.
The local newspaper has posted the names of those who have been reported missing. At least one name was too familiar. While the death toll has fluctuated since the tornado hit, the most recent confirmed number was 40.
But this is not supposed to be a sob story. The people of Tuscaloosa and the surrounding areas have rallied.
I am happy to say I wasn't the only person from out of town who showed up to assist the community and its emergency workers shoulder the recovery efforts.
Helping out was the best thing that’s happened to me in a long time.
I ended up at the community center in Brookwood, a country town just outside of Tuscaloosa that doesn’t have a Starbucks or a real grocery store, but does have people who care and know how to pull together in times of crisis.
The center also serves as the town’s storm shelter. I worked alongside my cousin who, when I arrived, was arms deep in donations that needed sorting.
The center had collected just about everything you’d find at a super center and organization was crucial. The contributions kept coming in.
Someone dropped off large plastic bags of Styrofoam containers of hot dogs, hamburgers and other snacks to be given to anyone who needed a hot meal.
We think the food was made by one of the sororities on the University of Alabama campus. I cannot say enough about the help the students have provided.
Classes have been cancelled for the rest of the semester, yet everywhere students were doing their part to repair the city that adopts them each school year.
Volunteering was a family affair. My cousin and I grabbed her 16-year-old brother and loaded bags of food into his pickup.
We headed out along old rural roads, off the main highway, where we handed out boxes to anyone who was hungry or knew someone who needed food. These were some of the hardest hit places in the county.
On one road, a fireplace marked where someone’s home once stood. The neighbor’s house did not fare as well. Up and down the roads, hills of rubble were all that remained of places people called home.
Cars and trucks were smashed. Men with chain saws stood on roofs cutting through toppled trees.
Mothers and their children sorted through the destruction on the ground, in search of family photos, clothing and anything else they could salvage.
We passed a car along the way with “shower rides” written on the back.
The driver was picking up people in the area, taking them to get hot showers and bringing them back so they could continue putting their lives back together.
When we returned to the community center a woman I recognized from high school walked in. She graduated the year before me, and we had probably never spoken, but I knew her face.
She told me she had lost everything and lived on the road where I had seen the fireplace. I didn’t have the heart to ask if it was hers.
She needed food, clothing and supplies for herself, her husband, mother and two little girls. My cousin grabbed a box, shoved another in my former schoolmate’s hands and began packing them with food.
We went through the center, gathering up toiletries, T-shirts for her husband, underwear for her children and blankets to keep them warm during the lingering cool spring nights.
They needed sunscreen, water, pillow cases, shoes and toys. Everything.
My cousin and I packed her sport utility vehicle so full I doubt she could see out her back window.
As she drove off, I said a prayer she wouldn’t need to return to the center and they’d soon get out of the tent they were staying in and get a solid roof over their heads.
There are countless organizations collecting monetary and other donations to help Tuscaloosa get back on its feet. If you’d like to help, please go online at www.givetuscaloosa.com.
Like my hometown, it will take some time before my heart heals. In the meantime, I will continue making trips back and offering help wherever it’s needed.