The fund will be used to bring immediate assistance to Unitarian Universalist families left homeless by waves of tornadoes that swept through six southern states on April 27, killing at least 285 people, injuring thousands, and razing entire neighborhoods. A violent tornado swept through Tuscaloosa, which suffered some of the worst damage from the flurry of storms, which also struck parts of Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Virginia.
“It has been a wild ride,” said the Rev. Fred Hammond, minister of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Tuscaloosa. “I have never experienced anything like this before. The tornado left a mile-wide path of total destruction.” Entire neighborhoods have been destroyed, he said. “There’s nothing left but matchsticks.”
Since the storm subsided, Hammond has been reaching out to members of the congregation to check on their safety and the condition of their homes. The congregation did not experience any fatalities; however, six families lost their homes.
Hammond’s first concern was to reach a member who is paraplegic. Access to the man’s neighborhood was blocked by downed trees. After he could go no further in his car, Hammond set out on foot and was escorted to the member’s home by police, who are guarding neighborhoods to prevent looting and to ensure access routes for emergency vehicles.
Once they reached his home, Hammond and the police found the man was safe, though the home across the street and much of the neighborhood had been reduced to piles of rubble. Trees had fallen on the roof and were blocking the house’s wheelchair ramp, leaving no way for the man to get in or out. Neighbors came with chain saws to clear the trees from the ramp. Like most of the area, the home had no power, leaving the man unable to recharge his battery-operated wheelchair. With assistance from the Mid-South District of the UUA, Hammond is arranging to purchase a generator to charge the wheelchair.
The 2011 Severe Storm Fund will help pay for relief supplies, such as the generator. It will also be used to house families displaced by the storm. At least six families affiliated with the Tuscaloosa congregation have lost all or part of their homes.
In one instance, Hammond reached a member by telephone, and she reported that her house was intact. He asked about the member who lived across the street. The woman on the telephone reported that the house looked fine. However, when the resident of the home returned from work, she found that the entire back half of her house was gone.
Members from Hammond’s congregation and from churches around the Mid-South District are rallying to provide support. Eunice Benton, Mid-South District executive, said that volunteers are gathering to provide immediate assistance with clearing debris. Norman Horofker, a Mid-South board member, is coordinating UU volunteers, including a chain saw brigade to help clear trees.
Benton said that she has been moved by the “outpouring of love and care that has already come in,” and she said she extends thanks to the UU family. “We feel embraced and loved and cared for. And we know you are there for us.”
In addition to physical damage, many people will be experiencing severe grief and sadness in the wake of the destruction and loss of life, said the Rev. Dr. Terasa Cooley, the UUA’s director for Congregational Life. “Oftentimes, one of the hard things to deal with is survivor guilt.” Members of the UU Trauma Response Ministry are en route to Alabama. The Rev. Julie Taylor is the response coordinator for the tornadoes on behalf of the Trauma Response Ministry. In addition to sending a trauma response volunteer to assist in Tuscaloosa, she is investigating reports that aid is also needed for congregants in the Tennessee communities of Chattanooga and Huntsville.
On Friday, as Hammond prepared for another day of visiting members and checking in on their needs, he was also preparing a sermon for the first gathering of the congregation since the deadly tornadoes struck. He was preparing to preach a sermon called, “Hang on, Toto. We’re going to Oz.”
“I’ll be using the Wizard of Oz story as a metaphor of our last week, so that we might find courage, wisdom, heart, and home in the weeks that follow,” he said.Information on how to donate to the 2011 Severe Storm Fund is available on the website of the Mid-South District.