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Spirit of giving flows in Alabama

BY P.J. HELLER | Tuscaloosa, AL | December 21, 2000

Alabamans were displaying the spirit of Christmas by opening their hearts -- and wallets -- to assist residents who lost homes

and belongings in last weekend's deadly tornado. Even survivors of the twister that leveled a mobile home park here and

tore through an upscale housing development were doing what they could to help.

A mother and daughter who were living in their car after their mobile home was destroyed stopped by a drop-off donation

site and donated part of what they had left. A college student who said, "I really don't have anything" took off his sweater

and handed it to a volunteer collecting donations. "That's the best I can do for now," the young man said.

"That's the human spirit of this disaster," noted Mike Owens, a radio disc jockey who was working at a collection drop-off

point set up by Radio South, which operates four FM stations in the area. The radio station had already collected four

tractor-trailer loads of goods and $25,000 in cash donations since launching a relief effort that was supposed to end Tuesday.

On Wednesday, people were still stopping by to donate items. As Owens was being interviewed, a motorist stopped, got out

of his car, handed him $200 in cash, then drove away. "As you can see, people are still giving even though we've told them

were basically done," Owens said. "They're still contributing."

That was also the case at Temporary Emergency Services, a site being managed by the United Way. Volunteers there have

been swamped with donations of clothing, so much so that they have asked people to stop donating clothing. "We have an

overflow of clothes, really and truly," said Cheryl Jolly, a volunteer and part-time employee at the United Way's Thrift Store.

Jolly said it is often difficult to dissuade or turn away donors who want to give items that may not even be needed. She

agreed that in many cases a monetary donation would be better. "You really don't want to limit people because there are

some people who really can't give the money but they can give other things. So whatever they can give is great," she said.

"Don't get me wrong," she added. "Money is wonderful. But I think if you can give anything -- if somebody can give us a

towel, if they can give us soap -- it's just as important to me."

Sam Guerrera, an emergency management planner with the Alabama Emergency Management Agency, said that if people

wanted to donate clothing, it should be new and at least be appropriate to the needs of the people. "We're in wintertime

down here," he said. "We don't need T-shirts and bathing suits."

What was needed, he said, was all types of cleaning supplies, paper products, and baby diapers. "And then, Lord bless

everybody, toys for the kids," Guerrera added.

Owens agreed that there was a need for baby items, including diapers, clothing, and formula." Anything that deals with small

children," he said.

The outpouring of donations and offers of assistance from inside and outside the state came as little surprise to relief workers

and volunteers. Owens said his radio station has been "bombarded" by people calling asking what they can do.

"I'm not surprised at all," said Ruth Goings, a volunteer at Temporary Emergency Services. "In this city, people contribute to

the needy. I'm not surprised at all."

"I knew a lot of people had giving hearts," Jolly said. "I never knew we would have the outpouring that we have coming in

now. We have trucks coming from Birmingham, from Mississippi, from everywhere. We have people who have been calling

from New York who want to donate things or who wanted to donate their time and come down and help us. It's just


Jolly said that there was more to people's willingness to help than just the fact that it was the holiday season. "You're more

giving during the holidays because your heart is more open to people," she said. "But I think it's also the situation. This has

really been hard . . . We've really been hard hit by this. We've had storms before but nothing like this."

"I've seen this generosity time and time again in disasters, not only in Alabama but across the nation," added Guerrera. "It

always makes me proud to see people willing to do that kind of thing." Guerrera said people's generosity also extended to

taking in family and friends left homeless by the tornado, which struck Saturday afternoon. Twelve people in the state were

killed, 11 of them in Tuscaloosa.

"You go out to the hardest hit areas where there were homes and mobile homes and there's nothing, absolutely nothing, for

these people to go back to," he said. "So we've got to assist them in rebuilding their lives. It's got to be real hard, especially for

those who lost relatives and close friends."

"Alabama is a real close knit community," he added. "When a disaster like this happens, it's very common for everybody to

open up their hearts and their doors to their friends, neighbors and relatives and bring them in. They don't want them

staying in shelters, especially at the holidays."

Guerrera predicted it would be take at least one year before the recovery and rebuilding was completed. Over at one of the

Temporary Emergency Services buildings, volunteers were busy sorting and stacking piles of clothes, linens and shoes.

Sweaters were stacked 12 high on a table, while other clothes lined the walls and hung from racks. At least three other

buildings operated by United Way were filled with donated items.

"We're separating as they bring it in," Goings explained. "They (survivors of the tornado) can just come in and go through it

and pick out what they want." As various groups and organizations continued to collect donations, space to store the items

was becoming a premium.

"That's why we're trying to push real fast to get a warehouse and get operations going," Guerrera said. The lack of

coordination among the various relief efforts was expected to be addressed on Thursday at a VOAD (Voluntary

Organizations Active in Disasters) meeting. The meeting was also expected to be the impetus for creating a VOAD in

Tuscaloosa, which has been wanting to start such a group, according to Guerrera.

Among those who planned to attend was Shirley Norman, a Church World Service (CWS) disaster resource facilitator.

Norman hoped to help organize a long-term interfaith response to the disaster. "I want to see a good recovery group set up

before I leave," said Norman, who arrived here Wednesday from Pennsylvania. "I'm not going to do it, but will work

together with FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Agency) and the Red Cross and see if we can leave behind some

kind of recovery system in place."

Norman volunteered for the assignment and said she planned to remain in the area over the Christmas and New Year's

holidays. She was not scheduled to leave until Jan. 6. Norman has helped organize interfaith response efforts for CWS in

numerous disasters. She said the Alabama tragedy was magnified by the fact it happened less than two weeks before

Christmas. "It's terrible when this happens any time of the year, but it's especially terrible when it happens at Christmas," she


Not only do many survivors have to rely on others for food, shelter and clothing, "they have to look to strangers to provide

their Christmas too," she said. "That's devastating." Even so, she said survivors will still have a holiday to remember. "The real

meaning of Christmas is love," Norman said. "And the love that these people will have poured out on them by other people

will be something they'll remember for the rest of their lives.

"They may not remember the gift or coat that they got, but they will remember the love that other people brought to them,"

she promised. "And that's the only good thing that ever comes out of it."

Owens said the tragedy had given many people who were not directly impacted by the tornado a new perspective on their

lives. "You look at those times in your life where what you thought was important is no longer important," he said. "People

talk about going to dinner, going to the movies and doing things like that. That's no longer important. Trying to put a

community back together is important."

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