After the Alabama tornadoes

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Video: The streets of Pratt City after the April 27 tornado.

I am familiar with disasters, at arm’s length. You don’t escape years in the newsroom without covering a few during your tenure.

And I have worked at disaster scenes, long after the crisis has passed. I spent weeks working in post-Katrina New Orleans and Biloxi as a volunteer removing mold, demolishing interiors, handing out food, painting a mural and building a doghouse.

I have seen the misery as it accumulates over months and years, as help slowly makes its way to those who desperately need it.

I never thought I’d see it in my hometown.

But at least I was emotionally and mentally prepared.

I’ll never forget April 27. Safe at home, I watched online that Wednesday as a giant tornado plowed through Tuscaloosa, an hour to the west. And then, it was headed straight for us.

The EF-4 tornado demolished Cordova, Fultondale and Pratt City, communities to the northwest of my neighborhood. Had it veered a few degrees to the south, someone would have been pulling my body out of the rubble.

The next 24 hours were madness. Aerial footage revealed the sheer devastation of the mile-wide tornado. It left a gouge in the earth a half-mile wide. Everything — houses, apartments, businesses, trees, utility poles — was flattened in its path.

That only 20 people were killed in Jefferson County is a small miracle in itself.

Behind the scenes, I have been posting information online on how people anywhere can help with the relief effort by donating money, goods or time. I had organized similar efforts back in 2007 and 2008 with Magic City Mission, bringing our assistance to the Gulf Coast as the residents there continued to rebuild.

I did the normal things following a disaster of such magnitude: I checked on friends and acquaintances, and also let them know I was fine. And then I got down to work: a fast-paced cycle of monitoring the news, verifying it and getting out the information as soon as possible.

For journalists, some things never change.

I took time out to have dinner with an acquaintance, just to get away from the madness for a couple of hours. When I got home, I cried.

The scope of the disaster is huge, the largest natural disaster this state has ever faced. Some 4,800 houses were destroyed or significantly damaged that day in this county; 900 other structures were also destroyed.

Statewide, 42 out of 67 counties have been approved for disaster aid. FEMA has set up more than 20 disaster recovery center, a far cry from its negligent response in the days following Hurricane Katrina. And 236 lives were lost from a confirmed 28 tornadoes.

Thousands of volunteers have converged on sites across Alabama. I spent the day Friday at the former Scott Elementary School sorting donated clothes and hauling sacks of them around. That afternoon, I walked the streets of Pratt City to see the damaged areas up close.

Members of the National Guard man check points at most intersections, a visible warning to would-be looters. A few residents are busy trying to salvage their belongings. And up and down these residential streets, houses have been ripped apart, some completely wiped from the earth. All the utility poles are new, because the existing ones had all been knocked over.

A mattress remains embedded in the upper branch of a barren trunk. Several lots sport the iconic front stairs to nowhere. Dozens of cars are smashed, overturned and beaten up. On each block, heavy machines scoop piles of former houses into dump trucks — you hear the “beep beep beep” as each one moves in reverse. It’s hard to say which is sadder: a house missing two-thirds of its structure, or a lot with just a pile of debris.

Looking at the Street View on Google Maps, I see what this area used to have: lots and lots of trees surrounding pretty little two-story houses. It’s all gone. You can see from one end to the other clearly.

It’s shocking. Because if you look to the horizon, you can see the empty path stretching off into the distance both ways.

I have hope, however. The disaster response that I’m aware of has been quick and sufficient so far. I can’t speak to the rural areas, but I pray they too are receiving everything they need. Plans are already under way to house the thousands of people until their residences can be rebuilt. Unlike New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward, no debate is needed on whether or not to rebuild.

And I have concerns. The City of Birmingham is broke. Jefferson County is broke. Alabama is broke. We already had a manmade crisis on our hands from economic mismanagement and embezzlement, and this recovery effort will require millions or billions in federal aid. That’s nothing new: Alabama has taken in more federal dollars than it has contributed for decades.

But seeing how my friends and neighbors have responded shows true community spirit and compassion. We shall not let those in need struggle alone. I know I’ll continue to contribute to the effort in the coming year, and share more stories from our own Ground Zero.

Pray for us, for Tuscaloosa, for Hackleburg and points inbetween. Give what you can. And may you never know this kind of suffering in your own hometown.

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