PRATT CITY, Ala. — Church groups, students and other volunteers worked aggressively Saturday to bring food, water and other necessities to communities ravaged by the second-deadliest day of tornadoes in history.
Across the South, volunteers have been pitching in as the death toll from Wednesday’s storms keeps rising. At least 340 people were killed across seven states, including at least 249 in Alabama, as the storm system spawned tornadoes through several states. It was the largest death toll since March 18, 1925, when 747 people were killed in storms that raged through Missouri, Illinois and Indiana.
In Pratt City, a working-class suburb of Birmingham, police vehicles and military jeeps filled the roads surrounded by leveled and gutted homes on Saturday. Officers barked orders to residents wandering through to clear the roads.
Thomas Brown said volunteers had stepped up to bring supplies – a day earlier, a pickup truck patrolled neighborhoods with volunteers jumping out of the back to hand out water and groceries. Dozens more turned an elementary school into a community hub, where people dedicated one room to storing bread and another to sorting donated clothing. A doctor set up shop inside, and a grill was set up outside. Students formed an assembly line to unload fresh supplies.
However, he said people needed more heavy equipment like trucks to start hauling out debris. He also said he was upset police had put up roadblocks.
“They let the governor ride on through but you can’t get to your house,” he said. “Why are they still blocking the streets?”
The Federal Emergency Management Agency has officials on the ground in five states, including Alabama. Tuscaloosa Mayor Walt Maddox has called the disaster a “humanitarian crisis” for his city of more than 83,000 – but he credited volunteers with keeping the situation there from spiraling out of control.
The Red Cross had set up a two shelters in Tuscaloosa, one of which housed 240 people and fed another 600 Friday night. Even people who still have homes don’t have electricity, and no way of cooking, said Red Cross spokeswoman Daphne Hart.
People who had been exhausted “lit up” when University of Alabama football coach Nick Saban came by to serve dinner Friday, and others said they were just grateful for the help.
Niki Eberhart, whose home in the Alberta City neighborhood of Tuscaloosa was shredded by the tornado, said Saturday that her husband and two children are getting everything they need at the shelter. This isn’t the first time they’ve counted on the Red Cross for help. When their home in Meridian, Miss., burned down last year in an electrical fire, Eberhart said the Red Cross responded within an hour.
“We feel like we’ve been blessed,” she said. “Both times it could have been much worse. We lost things. Material possessions can be replaced.”
Eberhart and her husband, Shane, also had already gotten help from FEMA workers at the shelter who handed out paperwork explaining the process for applying for federal help. And while they wait for a response from FEMA, Eberhart dismissed the offers of sympathy she had gotten from relatives.
“I told them we’re having great luck because it could have been so much worse,” she said. “If you don’t have any bad times, how are you going to appreciate the good times?”
This week’s tornadoes devastated the infrastructure of emergency safety workers. Emergency buildings were wiped out, bodies were being stored in refrigerated trucks, and authorities were left to beg for such basics as flashlights. In one neighborhood, the storms even left firefighters to work without a truck.
Volunteers stepped in to help almost as soon as the storms passed through. They ditched their jobs, shelled out their paychecks, donated blood and even sneaked past police blockades to get aid to some of the hardest-hit communities. Students from universities elsewhere in Alabama, and even from as far away as South Carolina and Pennsylvania, have offered to pitch in with supply drives and other aid.
Still, others said the government wasn’t doing enough.
Eighty-two-year-old Eugene Starks was working with a tow truck driver to pull a blown-out car from what remained of his garage on Saturday morning. He was hoping the government would provide more help so he could recover what was left from his wrecked house.
“I’m trying to do what I can myself,” he said. “I hope the government steps in, but I’m not holding my breath.”
Shamiya Clancy is one of those in desperate need of shelter after the homes where she and her family lived in the Alberta City neighborhood were wiped out. They’re now pooling their resources – clothes, money, food, whatever they can scrounge – but none of them has anywhere else to go.
A stuffed bear that her husband gave her on Valentine’s Day this year was the sole belonging she recovered when she sifted through the rubble. She was hoping to find family photos.
“If I could have found one picture, I’d be OK. I’d feel a little better,” she said.
In Rainsville, a northeast Alabama town devastated by the storms, people in cars stopped to offer bread, water and crackers to residents picking through what was left of their belongings. A radio station broadcast offers of help, a store gave away air mattresses and an Italian restaurant served free hot meals. A glass shop offered to replace shattered windows for free.
Emergency services were stretched particularly thin in the demolished town of Hackleburg, Ala., where officials had kept the dead in a refrigerated truck because of a shortage of body bags. At least 27 people were killed there and the search for missing people continued, with FBI agents fanning out to local hospitals to help.
Back in Tuscaloosa’s Alberta City neighborhood, a makeshift relief station was staffed by a mix of city employees, church members, National Guard troops and supermarket workers, and residents lined up for water, food and other basic supplies.
“We’ve got people who wanted to get in here and help, but they couldn’t get in earlier,” said relief station volunteer Doug Milligan, a Tuscaloosa native who is principal of a high school in nearby Woodstock, Ala.
Milligan had to sneak past the police blockades cordoning off the neighborhood. He figures he got by because he wore a T-shirt that read: “Bibb County Red Cross.”
“I didn’t tell them it’s only because I ran a 5K,” he said.