Tornado survivors salvage belongings

BY PJ HELLER | Tuscaloosa, AL | December 19, 2000

Residents here continued Monday to pick up the pieces of their homes and the pieces of their lives in the aftermath of a killer tornado which slammed into the area over the weekend.

"Oh, God, it's been devastating," said Joan Perry, as she and her 21-year-old daughter Misty salvaged what little they could from the flattened remains of their mobile home. "We have nothing left."

As volunteer workers used chainsaws to cut away fallen trees on her home and pull apart the mangled metal pieces, Perry picked through the rubble, at one point finding a Christmas present still wrapped in red paper.

Perry and her daughter weren't home when the tornado touched down. Her husband, Mike, was in the trailer at the time and suffered minor injuries.

"When we got here, he was crawling out from under the debris," she said.

"I've never seen anything like this before," Perry said of the tornado. "It was my very first and I hope it's my last."

Roger Holderfield, his head showing the scars from injuries he suffered when the twister lifted him out of his mobile home, also shuffled through the scattered wreckage of his home, picking up what little wasn't smashed to smithereens.

"I had (Christmas) presents all ready to go," he said. "They're all gone."

Despite the total destruction of the home he lived in with his 14-year-old daughter, Holderfield said he still had something to be thankful for this holiday season.

"I'm alive," he noted.

With unseasonably cold winter weather hitting the area -- forecasts early Monday had predicted that up to 2 inches of snow was on the way -- residents raced to move what they could out of the elements.

By Monday evening, a cold rain was falling. A winter weather advisory was issued with forecasters warning of icy streets by morning but said the area would likely not see any snowfall.

Workers, meantime, continued to repair roofs and cover windows of houses that were damaged by the F-4 tornado which hit Saturday afternoon, killing 11 people. A twelfth person was killed in Geneva, about three hours away. At least 75 people were injured.

Alabama Power Co. continued working to restore power to customers before more cold weather arrived. The company also announced it was donating $100,000 for storm relief throughout the state.

"The devastation is unbelievable," said Mike Garrett, executive vice president of the utility. "Some of those individuals and families have nothing and we feel it is time for the entire state community to rise to the occasion to help get them back on their feet."

Alabama Power also set up four tents where workers were serving hot meals and refreshments to survivors of the storm and emergency workers. At least 550 meals were served, according to Gene Lacey, a member of the utility's storm response team.

One of those tents was at the Valley View Baptist Church, which transformed its gymnasium into a distribution center for food, clothing, bedding, and toys.

The church had been turned into a makeshift relief center shortly after the twister touched down Saturday afternoon when authorities brought residents from the nearby Hillcrest Meadows subdivision to the church. More than 50 medical personnel were on hand to provide care, if needed.

"It's been an opportunity for our church to minister not only to our members but to our community," explained Associate Pastor Scott Payne.

"I'm thankful for the most part," he added. "I know we lost 11 people and I'm very sad about that. I also know it could have been a lot worse."

One reason the number of fatalities was low was because the twister hit during the afternoon, when many residents were out doing their holiday shopping.

In Tuscaloosa, which was the hardest hit area in the state, at least 400 homes were damaged or destroyed, according to Ronnie King, an American Red Cross volunteer doing damage assessments.

President Clinton announced that federal disaster aid was being made available to nine Alabama counties affected by the severe weekend weather.

"The President is very concerned about the terrible loss of life and destruction caused by these devastating storms," said James Lee Witt, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), who was expected to tour the area Tuesday. "He acted quickly in committing the necessary federal resources to ensure that all those in need get help as fast as humanly possible."

Help was either already flowing into the area or was on the way from individuals, relief organizations and the faith-based organizations.

The Red Cross had emergency response vehicles in the area and was manning several shelters. Few people were staying in the shelters overnight but they were filled with upwards of 500 people during the day, reported John Clizbe, vice president of disaster services for the Red Cross in Washington, D.C.

Clizbe, who flew here from Washington, said mental health professionals and nurses would be going through the affected neighborhoods on Tuesday to offer additional assistance.

Help was also either being provided or on the way from faith-based organizations.

The Salvation Army was operating three mobile canteen units, providing some 2,500 meals a day, according to Lt. Philip Swyers, commanding officer for the Salvation Army in Tuscaloosa.

He said a distribution center was being set up at the University of Alabama. Also planned was a distribution on Friday of Christmas toys to children affected by the storm.

Shirley Norman, a disaster resource consultant with Church World Service, was en route to the area Monday to work on setting up a long-term interfaith response. A representative of Lutheran Ministries of Alabama was also said to be en route.

Representatives of United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) were reported doing damage assessments in Tuscaloosa as well as cleanup and assessments in Geneva to the south.

Representatives from several Mennonite congregations were manning chain saws and helping clear the debris.

Individuals, like Don Lathem and his two young sons, were also lending a hand cleaning up, although police were still limiting access to the affected areas.

"We believe in helping our fellow neighbor that needs help," Lathem said. "They can't help themselves right now."

Their assistance appeared to be welcomed.

"It just seems that everybody wants to help," said Sarah Braswell as she watched workers carry furniture and other items out of her mobile home which was heavily damaged but which remained standing.

Workers also helped her remove a refrigerator and washing machine which had landed on the hood of her car.

"We've had strangers come up to us, people we've never seen before (to offer help)," Perry added. "All you can say is thank you."

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