Tuesday, May 11, 2010


RED CROSS ALABAMA TORNADOS 4/24/10 – 10:30 p.m.






In working with the Red Cross you have to have a bag packed and be ready to go on a moment’s notice. When I got the call from my Chapter in Jacksonville I was working at Volunteers In Medicine (VIM) downtown Jacksonville.

If you are called for a National Red Cross disaster you are expected to give them an immediate answer as to whether you can go or not. Since I experienced my first tornado in Ozark, Alabama, I figured it was destined for me to go. So I picked up my paper work at my Red Cross Chapter and found myself on a plane at 6:15 a.m. the next morning headed for Huntsville, AL.

My husband was based at Fort Rucker in Ozark, Alabama in 1971. He had just come back from Viet Nam. We lived in a trailer park and about mid-day the sun turned from bright sky to darkened night. We thought that was very odd, because it was like someone turned a light off. Then the eerie stillness and quiet impacted us. We were from New York, so what did we know about tornados? Suddenly the rain, hail and siren seemed to come all at once. My husband told me we needed to take cover because there was a tornado coming. I will never forget him putting my motorcycle helmet on my head and telling me we needed to get into the closet. The banging on the trailer from the hail was like the devil was knocking on our door. Tornados are like evil spirits gone array. They have no mercy and show no discrimination. We were blessed not to have been swept away with that tornado. We since lived in Oklahoma and Kansas. We used to watch the tornados from afar and some up very close. We once saw one move along the house tops and could see the debris circling around like garbage in a giant washing machine. Several times we had to sit in the basement listening to the awful wind howl and hear the trees bang into each other. For some reason, which I am very grateful for, it always missed our home.

I arrived at the Huntsville airport and was instructed to call a phone number when I arrived for further instructions. I felt like Jim Phelps on “Mission Impossible.” After calling the number I was then instructed to go to Avis and rent a car and go to the address I would receive from “Avis.” Da-Da-Dun-Dun! They were nice enough to give me a map. I didn’t want to take my GPS because I already had too much stuff to take with me. My husband would have been proud of me because I found the town and Head Quarters with no trouble at all. Well, to be honest, I did go the wrong way on the highway and had to turn around and go back west instead of east. Remember, I am dyslectic so I really wasn’t lost, so that doesn’t count. I knew I missed the turn off, but it did take an extra ten miles on time and gas to get back to the place I needed to turn.

After I checked in at HQ and was oriented to Red Cross responsibilities, goals, expectations, and assigned duties I was immediately sent to a local church that was set up for “Client Case Services.” It was in a Spanish community and none of the clients spoke English. We did have two case workers that spoke Spanish and translated for us, but it was a struggle from the get go.
When we got back to HQ I was still not assigned a place to sleep. There had been”Mass Shelters”, opened but no one came, so they had to be closed. In a Southern community such as the one we were in, the people are very community oriented and most of the folks had already abandoned their homes and moved in with family. I didn’t get assigned a place to rest my head until 7:30 p.m and my roommate and I didn’t get checked into the hotel until 9:30 p.m. I was one tired puppy. However, I appreciated, and thanked the Lord, that I did have a place to rest my head. So many didn’t and had lost everything. We had to report back to HQ by 7:30 a.m.

The next day was very confusing. I was told I was assigned to be a staff nurse for the “STAFF”, but the other staff nurse said she already had someone coming for that position. So no one seemed to know what to do with me. They were over staffed for “Client Case Work.” But the Lord put me in a much better place. They were short on help for the ERV (Emergency Response Vehicle) so I jumped at the chance to get away from the mass confusion that can happen when HQ is first set up. People were signing in from all over the neighboring counties and states. There were a lot from Florida. So I was happy to get out and mix with the people who really needed my help.

We first loaded the ERV with supplies from a huge truck that came from one of the Red Cross storage facilities. This particular one came from a Wal-Mart that just stores supplies for the Red Cross. While on the ERV I was also instructed to do nursing assessments on anyone who needed medical assistance. There were three of us, the driver, his navigator, and myself. We went to DeKalb County located in the mountains. Apparently the DAT (Disaster Assessment Team) just found out that no one from the Red Cross had known about this area. Our ERV was packed full with shovels, rakes, work gloves, clean up kits, garbage bags, water, etc).

Now you may remember that I am “accident prone”, so it won’t surprise you when I tell you that not only once, but twice, the boxes came loose and hit me in the head and back. Fortunately the boxes were the lighter ones containing the clean up kits. We had all the boxes secure, but the mountain roads and debris strewn all around made it rough riding.
Being a nurse I could assess myself and say “I’m fine let’s move on.” When I got back to the hotel I did count my black and blue marks and hoped there would be no more.


• Trailer picked up and moved 50 feet off foundation. The roof was gone and the cars destroyed, No one was hurt. The family dogs were outside through the tornado and were more spooked than the kids. The Azalea bushes were beautiful and looked like they were just planted. When I remarked how beautiful they were the young boy said to me “Yeah they bloomed right after the tornado hit.”
• Elderly Grandma alone in the house. She stated she was saved by moving into a small closet in the hallway after God told her to get out of the bathroom where she first tried to hide in the tub. She later realized that the bathroom had one entire wall covered with a mirror, and another large one over the sink. The only remaining part of the house left was the hallway with the small closet where she hid.
• Another elderly Grandma home alone. Her house was totally wiped off the face of the map. Her son had told her if a tornado ever came she was to get into the tub and put a pillow over her head and hold on to the faucet. She was found buried in the rubble holding onto the faucet, but the tub was no where to be found. She was hospitalized and released in two days.
• Another lone Grandma was standing in the hallway of the house when the tornado hit. The house was picked up and moved 20 feet off its foundation. The hallway was the only part of the house left.
• Mother with two small kids was asleep on the sofa when the tornado hit. She stated there was no time to hide. A giant size Oak tree was uprooted from their front lawn and was thrown through the house. The only part of the house still intact was where the mother and children were sleeping on the sofa. She told me the kids never even woke up. The giant size Oak tree was no where to be found. The mother gave glory to God that she and her babies were saved.
• Mc Nutt Memorial Methodist Church – built in 1877. Speaking to the Pastor was heart wrenching as he told me the history of his Church. His pain was palpable. He talked about the six generations in his family that attended the Church. Across the road was a cemetery, and in the middle stood a tall flag pole with the flag at half mast. He said it was at half mast because a piece of his heart died when the church was lost. The only thing left on the foundation was the piano, and he said that it was so old it didn’t sound so good anymore. He worried that if the church was not built again the younger generation would forget all about the beloved “Old Church” and how every week-end they cooked great meals and fed anyone who walked in the door. When we arrived at the church site there were groups of boy scouts from two counties away collecting all the stones that surrounded the once small precious church. They were all confident that the church would be built again. The old door knocker that hung on the door since 1877 was lost. The Pastor said it was even older than the church. He pointed out the massive oak tree that was lying on its side, still intact, like it just fell over and died. Someone was trying to cut the branches up with a chain saw, but there was so much gravel and glass embedded in the bark that it was like cutting into cement. I saw a lot of large trees uprooted and huge holes just left where trees once were, some trees split right down the middle, some trees standing but completely bare of leaves, some trees that looked like they were a chiseled sculpture of art. The massive tree that lay on its side next to where the once loved church was, indeed, was the largest tree I had seen. It had to be more than 200 years old.
• The Sunday school teacher and his family’s home were completely destroyed too. His wife was hit in the back with a piece of the fire place. She was still in the hospital, but was in stable condition. He was in the process of saving what he could and moving in with family. He told me he was going to teach at the neighboring church until his church could be built again. He had several stray dogs that his wife had a habit of taking in. They lived outside and they were frightened and had cuts and bruises from the tornado. The Sunday school teacher was very concerned what would happen to the dogs, because he was not able to take them with him. He worried about his wife who loved all the stray dogs.
• Through it all people praised God for their lives and didn’t worry that all their belongings and mementos, and their special treasure were gone. As a nurse I know that is the way most people feel after having their lives saved. Although two or three weeks down the road when reality sinks in that they will need real comforting. This Pastor and his faithful community will be OK because they will know where to go to find the peace that passes all understanding.
• We saw many signs in the yards that displayed humor in spite of it all. “House for free, lot for sale” – “If you like this house it’s yours” And many flags still flying in the midst of destruction.

When we finished covering the mountain and giving out as many supplies as we could we emptied the remaining supplies from the ERV into a storage garage.

The next day I was once again in another ERV covering a different area. My ERV driver was a 78 year old woman, so don’t ever use the excuse that you can’t help. Today we were dispersing food. The “Yellow Shirts” is an organized group of Southern Baptist’s that cook for the Red Cross. The Red Cross supplies the money and they do all the cooking. They work really hard and everyone knows the Baptist’s love to eat and they are great cooks. The ERV’s were based at a recreation center that was set up for the fire fighter’s and all the volunteers. The amazing thing about these Alabama tornados were that they left the down town areas completely intact. So business went on as usual. In fact, they did quiet well with all the volunteers, electricians, construction workers, tree trimmers, and contractors. The hotels were filled.

A fire fighter told me that many of the folks were unable to cook, because they had no electricity so this recreation center was set up and received donations of food from all over the counties. He also said many did not have electricity because they had no power due to people stealing copper. Good and evil becomes so obvious when there is a tragedy.

Today was rainy, windy with darkened clouds, and threatening more storms and tornados through the day. I could only imagine!

• Houses with bricks torn right off the OSB (Oriented Strand Board)
• Houses with roofs sitting next to the house.
• A house with no roof that apparently had a tree fall into it so it appeared as if the tree was growing up from inside the house.
• Watched a worker rest on a metal roof that once covered a house that was nowhere in site.
• Beautiful flowering bushes completely intact surrounded homes with no roofs.
• Brink homes that looked intact, with minor damage to the roofs and windows, but the inside looked like an explosion happened.
• An above ground pool was completely intact, but every tree was uprooted all around the pool leaving big round holes where they once provided shade.

The newspaper headlines “School Starts Again Today.” Once that happens there is hope that life will go back to normal. I was on the ERV again and we concentrated on the trailer parks with known illegals because they are afraid to ask for help. There are three to four families living inside one trailer. These trailer parks had minimal damage, but they were without electricity for a week, so we continued to bring them two meals a day and assist with giving them help with clothes, food, and money. Things are getting under control now. Many trees have been cleared from the roads. The Red Cross mission is coming to an end. We notified the people in the trailer parks that we were giving them a 24 hour notice that we would no longer be bringing them food. We had done our job and assisted them all we could. We referred them a local Spanish community church where they could get food and clothing after the Red Cross left the area. Many of them were humble and grateful but some tried to work the system as in a lot of cases.
My supervisor rode in her car behind the ERV to evaluate my performance and how I dealt with the clients and their medical issues. We were diverted from the ERV to assess a 15 month old child that was referred by a mental health nurse who had seen the family the day before. The child had fallen and had a contusion on her forehead and a laceration on her nose. The mother said she had fallen due to having no lights on because they had no electricity. The child was in no acute distress so all I could do was advise her mother to take her child to the Emergency Room. I stressed to her that even though her child had no fever, and appeared to be fine, she may not be, because hitting her head could turn into a serious problem. The child had Down ’s syndrome so I worried that her mother might not even be able to tell if she was really hurt. They, too, were illegal’s and did not speak English. I was very thankful that the nurse with me was able to translate my assessment to her. My guess is she did not take her to the ER.

My son lives in Birmingham, Alabama, about an hour away from where I was staying, in a little town called Boaz, Alabama. So he came and took me out to dinner after we finished on the ERV. What a blessing that was.

I was assigned to the ERV again. We notified the folks that this would be the last time the trailer parks would receive two meals from the Red Cross. The next day they would only receive lunch. Two ERV’s were eliminated yesterday and we were down to three now. Some of the trailers got back there electricity. The Red Cross had given out money, clothing, bedding, food, supplies, as well as medical and mental health assistance.

This was the last day the ERV fed the people in the trailer parks lunch. Someone asked, “What are we going to do?” All the electricity was back on so I guessed they would cook again. Since the Red Cross was winding down and reassigning and processing people to go to the Tennessee floods or home I got to see my son again.

We continued to follow up with clients that were not contacted or homes assessed. The order came from Corporate that the Red Cross would be closing on 5/8/10. I was sent out with a mental health nurse and two client case workers to check on an elderly woman who was referred to us by another mental health nurse from the day before. We were told she also had health issues. I was praised the Lord that the mental health nurse was with me, because this poor lady just cried her heart out. Later I told the mental health nurse if I had any more clients like her I would need a mental health nurse. She lived alone but while we were there someone from the church came by to tell her they would get someone out to remove the huge tree that was uprooted and lay in her front yard. She forgot to take her diabetic medicine, her high blood pressure medicine, and her Coumadin (blood thinner) medicine. She did have two daughters that lived in the area and she assured us they were checking in on her. It was ideal to have a mental health nurse and a medical nurse team to go out on these adventures. While I was doing my nursing, taking blood pressure, dressing a wound, and assessing her, the mental nurse was talking to her and calming her down. The client case workers were assessing the damage to her home. In a perfect world this really would work great, and in fact, it did.

I reported to HQ for processing to go home. However, one last detail was asked of me and that was to go to Lake Guntersville National Park to help set up a Red Cross tent for a fund raiser at a Bass tournament that was going to be held the next day. The park was beautiful and I can only hope the Red Cross got a lot of donations to help all their neighbors in need.

Everybody managed to find a ride back to Huntsville airport. My room mate and I were on the same plane to Atlanta. She went on to her destination from Atlanta and I was happy to be going back to my home that was safe and intact in Jacksonville, Florida.


FYI – If you want your donation to go to a particular disaster, or stay in your local town you must put that on your checks.


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God Mission Possible said...

Great blog post Estelle! Not only do you have first-hand experience with tornados and such, but you're using your spiritual gift of "mercy" as you help those in need during natural disasters through your service with the Red Cross. Thanks for your detailed descriptions - it's like being there with you! God bless you & your heart of service! Luv,