For those of you not living in Alabama and surrounding states, I’m sure you’ve been heard on the news over the weekend about the tornados that wreaked havoc in our area last Wednesday evening. You’ve probably seen the YouTube videos, like this one, that amateur storm chasers took, or you’ve heard about the rising death toll (now up to 345, with 248 of those deaths in Alabama alone). There are still hundreds of missing people, and many more who are now homeless and have no place to go. Many of those who survived with their homes intact haven’t had power or running water for days. The situation is so bad that the governor declared the state a Category 1 natural disaster, as high as the one given to Hurricane Katrina and the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
I admit that I never thought of Alabama as a tornado alley. I mean, isn’t that title reserved for states like Kansas and Oklahoma? Dorothy didn’t say “there’s no place like sweet home Alabama,” after all. So the first time I heard tornado sirens after moving here, I was pretty alarmed. But then, as they started going off every six weeks or so and we didn’t see any twisters passing outside our window, I kind of became immune to them and had a false sense of security about the whole thing.
So on Wednesday, when we began hearing reports of tornado warnings, I didn’t really think anything of it. That day I was helping Kelly frantically finish up the remodeling of her office space in preparation for the open house on Thursday night, so we were elbow deep in paint and plaster and really had no clue about the severity of the situation until a couple of people in her building told us that it was actually pretty bad. When the skies became eerily dark, and we heard those sirens start wailing, we panicked. We normally don’t get freaked out by situations like this, but when our friend Morgan came over from across the hall to tell us to come hide with her in her office (which is entirely surrounded by concrete walls and only has one small window), we rushed in immediately and began pushing tables together to hide under, just like they told us to back in third grade. Incredibly, our phones, internet, and power stayed on through the entire thing, so we huddled together and watched the storm tracker and texted our husbands and listened to the updates on the radio.
We were so lucky, because the tornado was literally headed right at us, but the closer it got, the more north it veered. It ended up going through the area just north of downtown, so we were far enough away that the most we saw and heard was some lightning and thunder and a little bit of flying debris. We breathed a huge sigh of relief, but then as we started seeing the photos and videos come in from the damage done in Tuscaloosa, my stomach just dropped. It seemed so surreal. That night, when I saw Jamie again, I was overwhelmed with thankfulness. We still had each other. We still had a place to go home to and a bed to sleep in. We were extremely blessed.
The next day, Facebook began to be flooded with updates and requests from the Birmingham Red Cross, the Birmingham Humane Society, churches, and other people organizing relief efforts. When I turned on the radio in the car, I heard people urging everyone to donate blood, drop off bottled water at designated stations, contact their insurance agents if their property had damage, and so on. I was most impressed by Toomer’s for Tuscaloosa, a page on Facebook created by Auburn fans to help organize volunteers and donations for areas affected by the storms. For all those Alabama fans out there who don’t think Auburn fans have class…. well, THIS is class. I will never look at football rivalries the same way, because things like this prove that what team you support is completely insignificant in times of crisis and devastation. I can say that I’m proud to now call myself an Alabamian, after seeing this community come together in record numbers and give away their time and resources freely to those who desperately need it. When I went to drop off supplies to the Red Cross at Boutwell Auditorium on Thursday, I literally had to wait in a long line of cars to get to the front to unload the car… that’s how many people were showing up to give and to volunteer. It was all I could do not to cry. Later, I met Jamie at the Irondale Cafe (the one that the book Fried Green Tomatoes was written about, and where we went to the Whistle Stop Festival last year) for lunch, because they had sent out the message on Facebook that 100% of their proceeds that day were going to the Red Cross, and they were urging people to show up and get food even if they didn’t have the means to pay for it. “Give what you can and take what you need” is what was written on the chalkboard in front of the restaurant. Now that, my friends, is what it means to be a Southerner.
The next day, we met up with our church at the Boutwell to serve dinner to those taking shelter there. Jamie and I talked to one group of women in particular who had been living together in a house in Pratt City that had been completely flattened by the tornado. They had no home, no car, no job, and no place to go. They hadn’t showered in three days. One of the women had a two-year-old son with a fever and ear infection, but couldn’t even get him medicine because the Red Cross couldn’t distribute it to her. It was one of the most pitiful things I’ve seen in awhile. We went and got little Quintin some medicine, and our pastor and his wife arranged to get them some clothes the next day, but in those cases, it just doesn’t seem like you could possibly do enough. I mean, what do you do when you literally have nothing?
I shot a wedding in Selma on Saturday with Kelly, but when we got back early Sunday afternoon, Jamie and I drove over to Pleasant Grove, another hard-hit area. What we saw there was just unbelievable. No amount of photos or videos could do this justice, because seeing it in person, talking to the homeowners face to face, makes it really REAL. What is most striking about the landscape is that there is a very clear path of destruction running right across the state. When you’re standing in the middle of that path, you can look half a mile in either direction and see where no damage was done. Trees still standing, homes untouched, perfectly normal. But in that path, everything is just basically flattened. It’s so weird too because if you’ve spent any time in Alabama, you know that the landscape is hilly and absolutely filled with huge trees, so that unless you get to a high point in the city, you really can’t see very far out. But as we stood in the middle of the destruction, it felt like being back out west, where you can look out and see for miles and miles and miles. It was like a ghost town in the desert, literally.
We went to Pleasant Grove to help out, so I was really hesitant to take my camera along. I just didn’t want to trivialize the whole thing and take advantage of other people’s pain and suffering and privacy. But Jamie told me I should, and I figured that if these photographs help just one person understand a little better what our beautiful state is going through right now, then it’s worth it. So for about twenty minutes we just walked around, surveying the damage, and I documented what we saw in the images below before putting down the camera and picking up a pair of work gloves to help out.
This is what utter devastation looks like.
If these next two images aren’t a testament to the force of a tornado, I don’t know what is. On the left, a box spring is impaled by a tree. On the right a rubber tire is impaled by a plastic tennis racket. How is that even possible?!
This next image completely haunts me. Most of the houses that were actually left standing on their foundations had the roof and walls ripped off, and the insides were on display like life-size dollhouses. It breaks my heart to see this little girl’s room like this, imagining where she was when it happened, if she survived, if her parents survived, and whether or not she’ll ever be able to recover from the emotional trauma of something like this. It’s as if her innocence was ripped away with half of her house.
The house below is the one we were primarily working on. Courtney, the lady in the pink, and her son Justin were living here, but fortunately went to the local storm shelter at the last minute to seek safety. It’s a good thing they did, because they were planning to hide in the hallway right inside that white door frame that’s still standing.
What you can’t see is that their neighbor’s house behind them was actually picked up off its foundation and slammed into their house. Amazingly, the family that lived in that house hid under the stairs in the basement and survived. When we asked both families what they needed, they said that they were just trying to sort through the rubble in search of anything of value before the bulldozers were scheduled to come in. The father of the family next door told Jamie he was looking for two things: pictures, and his loaded pistol, so be careful. Ha. They were also trying to dig out two kittens which had gotten trapped. One of them came out alive, but the other was dead when they found him. He was literally small enough to fit in your hands, and his body was still warm, but something had fallen and crushed him and he didn’t make it. It was so sad to watch. On the plus side, we uncovered some meaningful keepsakes, including Courtney’s hope chest which had her baby things and Justin’s baby things in it. Also, we found some strips of white lacy fabric, which Casey, the woman next door, said was what her mother had used to make her wedding dress out of. We also found lots of photographs, but nobody claimed them so we put them in a box to go to the church down the street, which is being used as a place to gather all unclaimed items of value for families to come sort through later on.
As a photographer (I mean, you knew this was coming, didn’t you?), it really drove home how meaningful photographs are to people. Literally, that was the only thing many of the homeowners were trying to find. While I’m sure it was horrifying to lose so many material possessions and to be faced with having to rebuild your home and start from scratch… photos simply can’t be replaced. That’s why I love projects like this Facebook page, which are dedicated to reuniting people with their missing photographs that have been blown and dumped all over the South. Another amazing testament to the power of community…. and of social media, without which stuff like this wouldn’t be possible. Yay, internet! It’s also a good reminder for all of us who are still lucky enough to have all our family photographs to store them safely. I would highly recommend scanning all of them into digital files (or paying someone to do it if you don’t have time). Then back them up onto an offsite system like Carbonite, so that if your computer and hard drives are also destroyed in a storm, the files will still be safe. Nothing can replace an original copy, but it’s better to have something than nothing. Only when you lose these memories do you realize how important they were to you.
One thing that really stuck with me was how unbelievably positive all the people were, despite having just lost pretty much all their worldly possessions. At one point, Courtney laughed and said, “Sorry y’all, my house isn’t normally this messy!” (Gives new meaning to the expression “this room looks like a tornado blew through it” eh?) She also told us that even though Pleasant Grove has been really close to being hit by tornados many times before, she was still considering rebuilding in the same neighborhood, just because she loved her neighbors that much. I mean, if that isn’t dedication to your community and positivity in the face of devastation, I don’t know what is. It just proved again how much these residents clearly valued people and relationships over material belongings. I think we could all stand to learn a lesson or two from the tornado victims about setting our life’s priorities straight.
Another thing that really struck me about being in Pleasant Grove yesterday was how many people had mobilized and shown up to help out. Cars were literally pouring in, many of them passing out food, water, and supplies like masks, gloves, and trash bags from the beds of their trucks. Again, it was a great thing to witness.
If you live in or close to Alabama and want to help, the Toomer’s for Tuscaloosa page and Hands on Birmingham are great places to start. Yesterday we were able to get into Pleasant Grove just with ID’s (most areas are being patrolled by the National Guard), but I’ve heard security is going to get tighter, so your best bet is to find an organization that already has a plan of action and the okay to get in to help.
Either way, please don’t forget about the work that lies ahead. I heard someone say recently that we’re running a marathon, not a race, and I know it will be easy in the coming weeks to simply forget about what has happened (especially with events like the royal wedding and Bin Laden’s death clogging up the media outlets). But what I have witnessed so far gives me so much hope for Alabama’s recovery.