Following the initial devastation, there was an unprecedented outpouring of volunteers, money, resources, assistance. The state has rarely, if ever, seen such a concerted generosity from so many, from points near and far.
During the Sunshine Express' run, not only was help forthcoming from Toomers4Tuscaloosa, readers, new-founded aid organizations and alumni groups, but regular people from places hundreds and thousands of miles away donated their time and resources to those most in need:
In the immediate aftermath of the Alabama storms, a group of Auburn fans started the Toomer's for Tuscaloosa Facebook page and quickly had tens of thousands of followers and a stream of comments from people either seeking assistance or offering help. By the first weekend following the storm, the page had become an indispensable resource, and its organizers were taking a direct hand in the relief efforts.
Lisa Michitti Cross, a 40-year-old art professor at a local university, volunteered to run an accompanying Twitter feed. Before she knew it, she was an integral part of the team working without rest to keep up with the information flowing through the website.
Soon, instead of simply posting items, she began emailing and calling people who had made requests and offered to follow up and ensure that connections were made. Organizing individual relief efforts from her Birmingham home inevitably followed.
"I didn't expect it to get as big as it did, as fast as it did," she said. "But I never had time to really think about it because there was such a sense of urgency to get something done."
When we reached her the Tuesday after the storm, asking to organize a donation run from the West Coast, Cross was ready with the contacts to make it happen.
"It was the first opportunity to organize something thinking ahead," she said. "We worked together to project what was needed when the truck finally got here, rather than just filling it with whatever we could get."
And the help didn't stop at just large-scale, well-coordinated efforts either, and nor were all the efforts just a short-term goodwill mission. Volunteers and supplies trickled in, eventually becoming a wave of much-needed, local assistance, and many volunteers spent months helping to rebuild:
I headed to the one [relief location] closest to my home – Five Points Baptist Church in Northport. An hour after I arrived, a woman came in holding a baby whose diaper had not been changed in over 24 hours. A man pulled up asking for bottled water for his neighbors in Alberta City who had nothing left in this world.
Tuscaloosa needed help.
Days after the tornado, the Tuscaloosa-based relief group “Temporary Emergency Services (TES)” secured the old Food Max building in Northport to use as a receiving area for the large number of donations that were beginning to pour in from all over the country. Several truckloads per day of food, water, toiletries, pet supplies, medical supplies, and clothing would arrive at the warehouse.
Volunteers came from all over the southeast, with some even coming from as far away as New York to help with unloading, sorting and distributing items to those who needed them.
Relief efforts at the old Food Max stretched in to the summer. With no air conditioning, the inside of the warehouse felt like a sauna. In spite of the heat, we continued our work. Arriving early in the morning and leaving late in the evening, some of us spent so much time there that it practically became a second job.
University of Alabama men’s and women’s basketball, softball, and soccer teams also came in to help out. They worked hard and never complained about the less-than- ideal conditions in the warehouse. On one occasion, an Alabama softball player cut her hand on a rusty nail and had to be taken in for a tetanus shot. She came right back to the warehouse and continued to work.
The generosity of our friends and neighbors in Auburn has been noted more than once, but Penn State students, alumni and Happy Valley businesses were absolutely wonderful to this community:
One of the deadliest series of tornadoes in American history shredded through the south and mid-west, killing 243 people in Alabama alone on April 27, 2011. Four months later and with an eye toward Penn State’s upcoming match with the University of Alabama, local businesses in downtown State College are pitching in to help.
"We need to realize these are students also, and because of that, we are one family,” Gummo said. “We want to come together and show we’re here to support, show our pride and our politeness and welcome them to our community.”
Students, like Maria Piedrahita, are optimistic that the unity among the Penn State campus will extend a helping hand to others in need. “We’ve done it with THON. We fundraise, we do it through community service and I’m excited we are going to do it again,” Piedrahita (junior-engineering science) said. “When it comes to helping others it shouldn’t be a rivalry, it should be about coming together.”
Nor did the help stop at just the wealthy monoliths like State College. One of the most touching moments came when several Kent State student-athletes volunteered to travel to Tuscaloosa to assist Tuscaloosa's homeless and displaced:
Kent State players Spencer Keith, Ishmaa’ily Kitchen, Lee Stalker and Jacquise Terry, along with Alan Ashby, Kent State’s assistant athletic director for communications, travel to Alabama on July 21.
Coordinating their trip with the American Red Cross and the Toomer’s for Tuscaloosa organization, the student-athletes and Ashby will spend the next two days working on a Habitat for Humanity house in Holt, Ala., for a family displaced by the tornado and volunteering at the City of Tuscaloosa’s McAbee Volunteer Center.
In addition, the Kent State group will hold a football clinic at Holt High School for a group of underprivileged kids who were displaced by the storm.
“Our players are excited to go down and lend a helping hand in the Tuscaloosa community,” says Kent State head football coach Darrell Hazell. “What life really boils down to sometimes is being able to help those in need. These four young men will represent the Kent State community well.”
These are just a few moments in an unprecedented display of humanity, philanthropy and community. There are thousands upon thousands who gave what they could, from $5 donations to the Red Cross to months in a warehouse; from awareness to direct giving; from phone banks to soup kitchens -- every bit mattered, and everyone who contributed is appreciated more than words can express from the residents of this beleaguered city.