I’ve gotten a couple of questions about how things are going here in Tuscaloosa after the tornado.
I can’t adequately express how much I appreciate the many, many volunteers who’ve come to help. We’ve had so many relief workers come that we had to cancel Sunday school classes — the rooms were filled with volunteers and air mattresses! At times, we’ve had over 100 people living in our church building — being fed breakfast and supper by our many volunteers, who formed 7 cooking teams to prepare two meals a day for 9 straight weeks.
The Church of Christ Disaster Relief Team (DRT) has been generous to coordinate much of the volunteer work, and they’ve done a great job. But after over 2 months of 24/7 service to former strangers in Tuscaloosa, DRT is leaving. Some are headed home for desperately needed R&R, and others are moving on to Joplin, Missouri.
DRT set up a couple of trailers on our church grounds, they’ve distributed work orders, and coordinated with the city and with other volunteer agencies. If they hadn’t come, we would have been overwhelmed. I don’t know how we could have handled both the demands of the recovery relief and the ordinary responsibilities of a large, active church without them. Many, many thanks!
There’s much work yet to be done, but the worst of it’s over. We’re transitioning from a focus on patching roofs and repairing houses to helping families get re-established after having lost everything. And so, after this weekend, we’re no longer housing volunteers. We’ve housed thousands, but we’ve been unable to host Bible classes and other events. Our members need to get back to normal. Part of recovery is re-establishing the normal rhythms of pre-tornado life.
And so, the greatest need is no longer for volunteers to help dig people out. Rather, those who lost their houses — something like 5,000 households — are relocating but have to start from nothing. Many had no insurance to cover lost appliances, furniture, and such, and they’re our current focus. We’ve received some generous donations for relief, and much of that will go to families who’ve lost their homes and all their possessions.
We’ve set up a committee to coordinate the effort, with the idea being that families from our church will work with destitute families to help them with utility deposits, appliances, kitchenware, and such so they can begin anew. The committee is four of our older men — three of them are retired. And they’ve poured themselves into the ministry. A key part of the effort is to personalize the charity — to walk alongside the families as they rebuild, to make certain they feel loved as individuals and that we help in ways that mere checks cannot.
Some who lost their homes are seeking help with insurance claims and whether and where to rebuild. Such large areas of Tuscaloosa have been destroyed, that many residents aren’t even sure that their old neighborhoods will ever be rebuilt. They city has yet to decide, for example, whether to rebuild an elementary school in one location, because there are very few houses left in the neighborhood and hence no children there to serve. We may be looking at a long-term major reconfiguration of the city.
We count ourselves blessed that the tornado damage was so close to our building, and yet our building wasn’t damaged. As a result, we’re located exactly where we need to be to be of service to the destroyed areas, making us a great place from which to dispense tornado relief.
Two major manufacturers are using our building and working with our volunteers this week and next to give away brand new women’s clothing. Many other national charities have made use of our facilities and volunteers to make distribution to those in need. Some kind Christians in South Alabama have donated used cars for some who lost their uninsured cars. The outpouring of generosity has been amazing.
Meanwhile, College Hills Baptist Church continues to use our building. They’ll be with us for many months as they settle with their insurer and make plans to rebuild. They’ve been wonderful guests.
The Central Church of Christ lost its building and contents in the tornado. They’ve temporarily relocated to Shelton State Community College while they rebuild. They’re in the process of putting plans together for their new facility.
The tornado has brought a spirit of cooperation and unity to the community. Churches are working together, coordinating relief work, and sharing experiences. I think we’re going to see much more intense cross-denominational unity and cooperation than ever before. We learned a lot of lessons about how to respond in times of crisis.
Finally, let me try to explain the impact of the tornado. Tuscaloosa County has over 200,000 residents, plus around 32,000 college students. Tuscaloosa and Northport are adjacent cities and form the commercial and residential core of the county. There are other towns, but all the others have less than 5,000 residents.
The tornado cut diagonally across Tuscaloosa all the way across the city and county. It hit some wealthy areas, but 95% of the residences lost were in the poorest parts of town. About 13,000 people comprising about 5,000 households were displaced, and most of them were renters. Most of the landlords had insurance on their properties, but very few renters had contents insurance. They lost literally everything — cars, appliances, furniture, silverware, dishes — everything.
Many of these poor, destroyed neighborhoods won’t be rebuilt or, if rebuilt, will be rebuilt as something else. No one takes insurance money and rebuilds a slum. They reinvest in something newer and better. And that leaves many among the poorest with no place to live. You see, many can’t afford the rents commanded by new housing because they’re unemployed or retired on Social Security.
Fortunately, the Tuscaloosa housing market had been severely overbuilt, and so everyone is being moved into existing housing, often with governmental assistance to pay the much higher rent — but that assistance will be temporary. I don’t know where the poorest of the poor will live after their housing vouchers expire. Hopefully, we’ll get some funding to build some high quality affordable housing.
Two elementary schools were totally destroyed and third badly damaged. Kids are being re-located around town just to find them an open classroom. And the fact is that their old neighborhoods may never return. They may be rebuilt as commercial property or as more profitable student housing. No one knows. Therefore, some have lost everything they own as well as their neighborhoods and the support of nearby neighbors and friends.
The city is still sorting through these kinds of problems. Zoning and redevelopment plans are being made for the destroyed areas, and whatever those plans turn out to be, the city will be permanently changed.
Numerous churches were destroyed — and the neighborhoods they were in were destroyed, too. A few churches are already rebuilding, but some are waiting to see whether it makes sense to relocate in light of the massive displacements caused by the tornadoes.
But outside the destruction, life has returned to normal. Power is on, water is clean and running, and businesses are open. Most of the city was not destroyed, and so things look much the same until you happen across the mile-wide devastation.
Joplin’s loss is, in our minds, much greater. Go to Joplin and you’ll see some volunteers from Tuscaloosa. And you’ll relief supplies from Tuscaloosa — because they need it even more than we do. They lost their hospital and many other essential services, and a much larger percentage of their town was destroyed.
It puts things into perspective. Yes, it’s really true that, as awful as this is, it could have been worse. Our hospital had anticipated the storm and had extra staff on hand to receive the wounded. The storm spun onto hospital grounds but did no serious damage. And as a result, the wounded could be quickly taken there for medical care. Less than 50 people died. 5,000 residences were destroyed, and yet only 50 people died. It’s incredible.
We are fortunate. We’re fortunate not only because it could easily have been as bad as Joplin’s loss, but also because so many people were prepared to come to offer relief. Katrina taught many of us how to respond to a disaster and resulted in the creation of many disaster relief agencies and helped create a new spirit of volunteerism. (We actually had one group spend the night in our building on their way to do continued Katrina relief. They’re still digging out in some places.)
But mainly we’re fortunate because Jesus died for us — and his example of service to those in need caused thousands of people to give up vacations and quiet retirements to come to Tuscaloosa and walk in the steps of the Savior for a few days. You see, but for Jesus, things would have been much worse in every way.