“The extent of the damage is just stunning,” said General Assembly Mission Council executive director Linda Valentine after visiting Tuscaloosa and Culllman, Ala., last week with a group of Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) leaders.
The EF5 tornado tore through Tuscaloosa late in the afternoon of April 27. Once the storm passed, survivors wandered out of their houses to begin the daunting task of checking on their neighbors, chain-sawing through the trees blocking roads, organizing shelter and food.
The blur of those first frantic days has passed and a plan is beginning to emerge.
“Being here makes one realize what a long, hard task this is going to be,” Valentine said. “While the damage is overwhelming, the human response is both amazing and moving. The desire to help is tremendous.”
Immediately after the storm Presbyterians across the country wanted to know how to help, but had to wait for some of the chaos to die down. Presbyterian Disaster Assistance (PDA) was soon on the ground, with Doug Macdonald and Gene Krcelic from PDA’s National Response Team on hand to help organize the relief and recovery effort.
PDA responders are well experienced ― trained in pastoral care and equipped to bring a calm presence as they advise communities on long-term plans for recovery.
The churches of Tuscaloosa have moved ahead with efforts to aid their community. Valentine and other PC(USA) leaders toured the stricken area on July 28, visiting pastors, churches and students affected by the storm.
Along with Valentine, the delegation included Randy Ackley, PDA coordinator; Doug Macdonald and Gene Krcelic, PDA response team members; the Rev. Tom Hay, Office of the General Assembly director of operations; and the Rev. Terry Newland, executive of the Synod of Living Waters.
The group was driven through Tuscaloosa by Kathy Wolf Reed, associate pastor at First Presbyterian Church. As this group rode along in the church bus they could see that large, heavy equipment is everywhere, excavating and clearing the giant mounds of debris.
The storm was indiscriminate, leaving behind vast piles of rubble for the wealthy and the impoverished to load and haul away.
Churches here are transitioning from immediate disaster response to sustainable, long-term recovery plans.
First Church is a PDA hospitality site for teams of volunteers, who are working with Habitat for Humanity rebuilding damaged homes. The church has a hospitality center in its building, with a small kitchenette for groups to make breakfast and lunch. Sunday school rooms have been converted into sleeping and relaxation quarters for volunteers and they have access to the YMCA across the street for showers.
Hospitality center coordinator Amy Perkins, a member at First Church, said that they are booked with groups through November. “We expect five to six years of recovery efforts,” she said, adding that the church plans to make space for groups as long as they are needed.
A group from Abilene, Texas is currently staying at the church and working on a home in the Holt community, which was almost completely wiped away by the storm.
Another stop on the Tuscaloosa tour was Covenant Presbyterian Church where the wall of the chancel, directly behind the pulpit, was torn away. The empty space is now covered by a familiar blue tarp, which flaps in the breeze. Other damage includes a gaping hole in the roof and extensive damage to their pipe organ.
Classroom space was also damaged. First Church is assisting Covenant to continue their Autism ministry by providing space.
Covenant’s pastor, the Rev. Rick Olson, says some in the congregation want to restore the sanctuary, while others would like to rebuild a more flexible space for worship which can be adapted for varying needs.
A commission of the session is gathering input from the congregation while an insurance claim is settled so they can determine how best to repair and rebuild the church. Three months after the tornado, almost nothing has been done because of delays with the settlement. This is a common story in Tuscaloosa among those fortunate enough to have insurance.
Covenant Church is also re-envisioning their life as a faith community in the aftermath of the tornado. Their neighborhood all around is devastated and they are asking themselves how they can best serve this wounded community in the short-term and long run, even as they begin their own repairs.
Valentine found this inspiring, “clearly your congregation is committed to continuing to worship and serve,” she told Olson.
Another congregation affected by the storm, Brown Memorial Presbyterian Church, is located adjacent to historic Stillman College. Brown Memorial was not damaged by the storm, but has been galvanized into action since the tornado.
For weeks the church has prepared hot meals each Thursday to be delivered to Rosedale Court, a section 8 housing project heavily damaged by the tornado. Homes and lives were lost in Rosedale and now residents fear further loss as what remains will soon be razed, forcing their community to at least temporarily disband.
The people of Brown Memorial are a familiar sight in Rosedale, bringing hot, nutritious dinners and concern. Marcelyn Morrow and Richard Green lead the effort but countless others help make it all happen, purchasing the food, cooking and boxing it up and hand- delivering it.
On this day Ackley, Hay, Newland and Valentine assist with food delivery. Brown Memorial pastor Greg Bentley knocks on doors and asks, “Would you like some lunch?” This is no simple sandwich. It is a hearty, classically southern meal: fried chicken, macaroni and cheese, green beans, corn muffins, summer squash casserole and a slice of made-from-scratch cake. All of it is served with a listening ear and a desire to stay connected.
Morrow said: “We are a small congregation and this has been excellent for our morale to be able to go out and do something so hands on when there is so much destruction in our city.”
Brown Memorial is committed to continue their work with Rosedale Court residents after the relocation. “They need someone to help them navigate the recovery system and we think we can be of assistance to them,” she says.
At the end of the day, the PC(USA) group stopped at University Presbyterian Church, which shares space with Westminster Fellowship, the Presbyterian campus ministry at the University of Alabama.
University Church received $3,000 from PDA to help feed people affected by the storm. They are currently hosting groups who sleep on the floor of the fellowship hall, use the church kitchen for meals and shower at the University of Alabama recreation center nearby.
The church has used the PDA funds to purchase food from the Tuscaloosa Food Bank and deliver it to the Salvation Army relief centers and Tuscaloosa Emergency Services.
The experiences of Westminster Fellowship students who survived the tornado are still raw and their need to share their stories with the delegation was palpable. Brothers Chris and Nick Bacon lived in a house in a heavily damaged neighborhood with 10 friends.
The dozen terrified students hunkered down in their basement, holding on to each other, through the tornado. “There was a perspective change right then,” remembered Chris. “It could have all been over right then.”
Each of the students spent time the next day helping their community. The Bacons helped clear trees so that roads were passable for search and rescue crews.
Another student, Matt Mitchell, who rode out the storm in his bathtub, spent time in the Holt community patching roofs.
The students told of chaos in the aftermath of the storm, of searching for friends and neighbors, of working long days helping to clear debris, feed rescue workers and cover roofs.
They spoke of their high energy in the days immediately following the tornado. They also told of the emotional depletion that followed and the disconcerting time they spent this summer, away from Tuscaloosa.
The road ahead to recovery is long and still unclear. The city of Tuscaloosa plans to rebuild the stricken area, perhaps with a memorial greenway that traces the path of the destruction.
Meanwhile, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is here. And Presbyterian Disaster Assistance is laying plans for years of recovery work. The people of First, Brown Memorial, Covenant and University Churches intend to be a part of that effort.
For information on how to contribute money or volunteer work to Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, please visit the website.
The Rev. Janet Tuck is communications director for the Synod of Living Waters and a frequent contributor to Presbyterian News Service.