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Tornado-struck towns begin recovery

Unitarian Universalist Trauma Ministry prepares congregation for the road ahead.
By Michelle Bates Deakin
5.9.11

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The Rev. Fred Hammond sings “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” at the UU Congregation of Tuscaloosa.

The Rev. Fred Hammond sings “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” at the UU Congregation of Tuscaloosa’s first Sunday service after tornadoes ravaged the city in April. (Joy Glass Koch)

Once a lush city full of mature trees, Tuscaloosa, Ala., is now a “strange and terrifying landscape,” said Deb Crocker.

Last week’s powerful tornadoes knocked down trees and stripped others bare, transforming a green, leafy city into barren streets spiked with spindly matchsticks. Crocker, president-elect of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Tuscaloosa, has been struggling to drive around the city since the storms hit, with streets closed by fallen trees or narrowed to one lane because of piles of debris from destroyed houses and stores.

A week after devastating tornadoes turned cities and towns in six southeastern states inside out—with estimates of $5 billion in property damage and more than 340 deaths—recovery is beginning. Residents of Tuscaloosa, among the hardest-hit cities, with at least 41 dead, have picked through the rubble to salvage personal belongings. And they are searching for ways to begin anew.

Many people are also asking themselves why their house was destroyed, but not their neighbor’s. Or why their neighbor’s house, but not theirs. “The universal experience of a tornado is waiting for it to happen, and then wondering why it affects some people but not others,” said the Rev. Bret Lortie, minister of the First Unitarian Universalist Church of San Antonio, Tex., who flew to Tuscaloosa after the storms as part of the Unitarian Universalist Trauma Response Ministry. “A lot of people are experiencing a lot of feelings and emotions and not realizing that it’s completely normal.”

As part of the Trauma Ministry, Lortie helps people understand what to expect in the aftermath of a disaster. He also helps church leaders prepare for the long road of recovery ahead. “Our job is to prop up the leadership so they can do the work they need to do,” said Lortie, who has been working side by side with the Rev. Fred Hammond, minister of the UU Congregation of Tuscaloosa, as well as the church’s board president, Mary Rives.

Eunice Benton, district executive of the Unitarian Universalist Association’s Mid-South District, said that she has been grateful for and touched by the outpouring of support UUs in the district have received. Although Tuscaloosa suffered devastating losses, including the destruction of the homes of six members of the UU Congregation of Tuscaloosa, areas around Birmingham and Huntsville, Ala., have also been affected, and congregations there are dealing with the aftermath of the storms. “Most of the area that is Mid-South District has felt the effects, since the twisters touched down in so many places, near home or work for so many families and friends of UU congregations here,” Benton said.

The UUA established a 2011 Severe Storm Fund to assist Unitarian Universalist families and their communities as they repair their lives and properties after the storms. One week later, donations to the fund had reached $20,000, according to Benton.

One-quarter of the donations came from a single congregation. The UU Congregation of Atlanta took up a collection for the fund at its two services on May 1, netting $5,000 in donations. The UUCA staff also is sponsoring an emergency school supply collection for the victims of this disaster, asking members to donate pens, pencils, and notebooks for children who lost theirs.

For Hammond and others in Tuscaloosa, the focus is beginning to shift from immediate post-storm needs to long-term recovery. At the first Sunday service after the tornado, many members of this church saw each other for the first time, exchanging hugs, tears, and offers of help. Six members—a significant chunk of the 75-member congregation—had homes that were severely damaged. Hammond preached a message of hope based on the story told in The Wizard of Oz. “We will need to lean on each other for heart, for courage, for wisdom, and we will need to be the ones who create a sense of home once again,” Hammond told the congregation. He sang “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” to the congregation’s children, too.

After the service, the church provided a luncheon. “It helps to eat together,” said Crocker. One member had brought in laptops, so that people could take advantage of the church’s wireless connection to email relatives whom—without power or Internet access—they had not been able to reassure about their safety.

As he prepared to return to San Antonio, Lortie was thinking about what lessons from the tornadoes and their aftermath he would preach about to his own congregation. He was planning to discuss how his community needed to make preparations for responding to disasters. San Antonio is an evacuation area for coastal cities in Texas, he said. “We need to be ready, so that when we’re called to minister to the needs of the world, we can do it.”

Lortie noted that for many UUs social justice work is focused on institutional change and organizing. “We can do better with basic outreach,” he said.

Although appreciative of the outpouring of offers of assistance, several people cautioned against well-meaning volunteers descending on Tuscaloosa. The city’s mayor has said that volunteers need to be registered with the city. And people without the necessary specific skills create a burden for the city, which then must house and feed them in addition to its own displaced residents.

“Lots of folks have offered to come in person to help, but at this time, most communities are requesting no individual outside volunteers,” Benton said. “If there is a need for this in the coming weeks, we’ll let our UU community know.”

Early last week, Hammond and Benton both attended a previously scheduled ministers’ retreat at The Mountain Retreat and Learning Center in Highlands, N.C. It was a respite for Hammond, who said he had been running on adrenaline since the storm struck. “I need to recharge myself, because this is going to be a long haul,” Hammond said. “Tuscaloosa was changed forever by this.”

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