2011 April 30
To Gulf shore residents of Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama, Hurricane Katrina remains a vivid nightmare. So when one of history's largest and most powerful tornadoes touched down and leveled huge swaths of northern Alabama this past week, the scenes of destruction struck a deep and chilling chord. On Wings Of Care and several residents of the New Orleans, Lafayette, and Gulfport areas went right to work planning how best to help. We made lists of critical necessities such as temporary living shelters, baby and medical supplies, basic foodstuffs and some tools. Instead of waiting for donations to get organized and assembled, we went out and bought most of it, filled our plane ('Bessie', as she is known affectionately to hundreds of grateful people now), and flew to Tuscaloosa, Alabama on Sunday, May 1.
Thanks go to the prompt generosity of local Gulf residents for making this quick response possible: Gerald Maples, who paid $800 for the supplies we bought; Marion and Penny Edwards and Executive Aircraft Charter/Acadian Ambulance, who donated $500 toward airplane operating costs; Brayton Matthews and Flightline First of Lakefront Airport who donated $250 of fuel plus hangar space and a vehicle for shopping and transporting; Robin Young and Jerry Cope who brought over bags of linens and clothing to round out our plane load of supplies.
Bessie was filled to her ceiling, with barely enough room for me to squeeze into the pilot's seat. Fortunately, strong tailwinds made for a quick trip, putting me at Tuscaloosa airport in just under two hours. When I landed, I was met by a very tired local friend, John Wathen, who is also a well-known friend to the Gulf since the BP disaster last April. He looked like he had not slept or stopped to take a breath in days, and his voice was so hoarse he could hardly talk. He hugged me and wept as he shared that just 20 minutes earlier, as he was leaving to meet me, they had discovered another dead body in the hills behind his house, and there were still over 400 people still unaccounted for. Then he looked at my plane and cracked what was probably his first smile in days: "Darlin', how the ___ did you ever get that plane off the ground?!" As we unpacked it and he saw all that was there, he kept repeating "You are a godsend! This is unbelievable. This is perfect!"
I offered to stick around and help. He and Derrick decided it would be great for me to drive around and see things and meet some of the folks. I thought that maybe I could learn more about what was needed for another future supply flight. And that if I could tell people more about what was there, especially folks who know me and trust what I say, that we might be able to raise more donations for supplies and help. I hadn't planned for photo-documentation and because of space in the plane I had not brought anything with me, but I did have a small point-and-shoot camera in the airplane, and that's what I used. I think you'll get the message just fine. With destruction this dramatic, it's hard not to.
The photos will speak for themselves, mostly. A few could use some explanation, so here is some. Note that tornadoes have come through this area of Alabama for many years. But few have touched down, and none have hit these beautiful hills of the southern Appalachians for several decades. The locals were shaking their head as they said things like "We've watched tornadoes come and go for years, but they always move north or south, we've never seen them come straight through these hills!"
1 -- An old small storm shelter, made from a large culvert pipe with a welded steel door and two long wooden picnic benches inside it. About 10 feet long, 5-1/2 feet high, and 7 feet wide, it had been built into the ground decades ago. For one full hour, 45 -- yes, forty-five -- people from the Chalet Ridge trailer park and vicinity huddled inside that shelter while the winds blew and trees and trailers and houses crashed all around them. You'll see photos with local Terrance Crummie standing by the door and inside; he helped herd family and neighbors into the shelter with just seconds to spare, and he and other men had to hold the door shut from the inside.
2 -- A bit farther north we followed a dirt road and passed an old wooden church that had collapsed on itself, with only the modest wooden steeple intact, sitting on top of the rubble.
3 -- Past the church, on left and right, were remains of wood and brick homes, roofs torn off and walls collapsed. All around us, trees and utility poles were broken like matchsticks 50 feet above the ground, and electrical and telephone lines were strewn everywhere. We turned on to a gravel road, attracted by the sight of two men working to pull rubble out of the remains of a mostly-collapsed wooden house, their dog sitting by soberly, staring as the men worked.
4 -- Just beyond that house with the dog, we saw several more former-houses up ahead, roofs torn off and most of them collapsed or nearly so. We had to chuckle at the rebel flag still flying in front of one of them. The South always rises again.
5 -- At the end of that road we found about 10 people, a family and some neighboring families. Young couples, and some young children. What a fascinating hour we spent with them. They were all fifth- or sixth-generation in this area, living in the same homes that their grandparents and great-grandparents had lived, raising their children to know and love the same creeks and canyons and hills. Their house had been large and lovely. And as the tornado passed, they and about fifteen neighbors had crowded together down in their small basement, listening to the roof and ceilings above them come crashing down all around. These men had been the ones to work all night and all the next day after the tornado, clearing the roads so that trucks and supplies could make it in. They were strong and tough and proud, they barely accepted supplies and needed no help, but they were right there helping everyone else. The inside of their home looked like a bomb had hit it. When we saw their young daughter's bedroom, totally destroyed and one of the first areas to be hit as a large tree had fallen into it, her mother confided to me that by some miracle, just that evening their daughter had come into their bedroom and wanted to be with them, something she had not done for a very long time.
6 -- The others are representative examples of what can be seen in all directions up there in those beautiful Appalachian hills. Electrical and telephone cables are strewn everywhere, poles lying on the ground or leaning on trees or collapsed structures. Houses that aren't collapsed have had their roofs blown off and are now either left open or are covered with tarps and being reconstructed. There is 'litter' of huge size everywhere. People of all ages and sizes are working, cleaning things up, rebuilding, sorting. There are temporary aid and supply centers set up under small shade canopies, offering bottled water, snacks, sandwiches, first aid.
We'll be making a second supply delivery flight this week, and will visit some more remote areas to take them specific supplies they are known to need. We'll post those photos promptly.
NOTE 1: A list of the supplies flown on this first flight to the tornado victims around Tuscaloosa, Alabama by On Wings Of Care is as follows, together with total costs incurred and funds donated thus far:
Shelters and related:
2 large shade canopies, 4 small tents, 1 large tent, 4 sleeping pads, 2 nylon folding chairs.
Children & Hygiene:
Diapers- 96 per box, one box each of sizes 2, 3, and 4. Six glass baby bottles, 2 large containers of powdered baby formula. A few dozen jars of baby food. 2 large boxes of baby wipes (360 in each).
Qtips, cotton balls, two bottles each of hydrogen peroxide and isopropyl alcohol. Large bottles of shampoo, a couple dozen tooth brushes and four tubes of toothpaste, razors, feminine hygiene (pads and tampons, variety of sizes), bar soap, dish soap.
Lots of foodstuffs, mostly packaged dry dinners, soups, noodles, trail mix, mixed nuts (mostly healthy like natural almonds and mixed, but some peanuts and stuff too), dried fruits of a variety (yes folks you're getting prunes, too), etc. Powdered drinks with electrolytes and vitamins and minerals, soy milk, cereals, butter replacements, canned meats (ham, etc.). peanut butter -- 4 jars.
4 Bed pillows, miscellaneous linens (several large bags full), some adult clothing.
Paper towels, toilet paper, paper and plastic plates and silverware, disposable aluminum cook and bakeware, large cups that can double as bowls.
Large heavy-duty trash bags.
TOTAL COSTS of purchased supplies: $761.13 (Paid by F. Gerald Maples)
Total flight time: 4.8 hrs
Total fuel purchased: 49.3 gal; Cost: $295.80. (Paid by Marion Edwards & Executive Aircraft Charter/Acadian Ambulance)
Non-fuel aircraft operating expense ($90/flight hour): $432 (Paid by Marion Edwards & Executive Aircraft Charter/Acadian Ambulance)
GRAND TOTAL Costs for Flight 1: $1488.93
(All piloting, coordinating, and time spent by On Wings Of Care volunteers is donated free of charge.)
NOTE 2: As for all photo 'galleries' on this website, you may click on any photo below to see the high-resolution version.