What Stands in a Storm, Part III: Fellowship

Town to town, person to person, strangers helped victims pick up the pieces of their lives.
Kim Cross (additional reporting by Erin Shaw Street, David Hanson, Stephanie Granada, and Cory Bordonaro)

That tragedy can drive a woman who answers her phone “War Eagle! This is Holly” to send truck after truck to folks who yell “Roll Tide!” kind of says it all.

“I hated them,” says Auburn alum Holly Hart. Yet there she was, the driving force behind Toomer’s for Tuscaloosa, a group of 11 ordinary folks who sent help to more towns than they bothered to count—even to their own sworn enemies. “I’ll tell you straight. I cheer for Auburn and whoever is playing Alabama.”

Equipped with a smartphone and uncommon sense, Holly, an interior designer and mother of three, played dispatcher controller for waves of trucks sent not by official agencies but church groups, towns, and folks who have learned not to wait for help.

She used a Facebook group as her command center where avatars moved semi trucks and status updates brought real people face-to-face.

“This is social media, but how it is being used is more like the old-fashioned church phone tree,” said James Chris Fields, of the Toomer’s crew.

And that is how a mother with grown kids, who has never been trained in emergency response, managed donations and cries for help from 86,000 people.

“Anybody can make a difference in the lives of others if they’re just willing to show up,” said Holly. “None of us has any training in this. If each person gets out and helps one other person, it doesn’t take long for this to be taken care of.”

Just when Holly switched gears from crisis mode to plan for rebuilding, she heard the news about Joplin.

Tuscaloosa and Joplin were already friends. Joplin had sent help barely a month before, and was hosting a fund-raiser for Tuscaloosa on the night that the storms hit Missouri.

“Let’s load a truck and go,” Holly said. Within 24 hours, three trucks were filled from the Tuscaloosa warehouse that Joplin had helped stock.

On the way to Missouri, a providential thing happened in the ketchup aisle at a Walmart somewhere in Arkansas. Holly had just realized that a simple error—the wrong town typed into the GPS—had run her truck 100 miles off course. Regrouping, she stopped to fill her buggy with hot dogs and buns to cook when they arrived.

Among the condiments, a stranger asked about her cookout. She told him it wasn’t a party. The man told her then about Altus, a little town down the road that the national news had missed. It needed the things Holly had in her truck—formula, diapers, first aid. She let Joplin know two other trucks were on the way, but this one was needed in Arkansas.

Holly knows there’s a lot of work to be done before her South is back on its feet. Her deadline is the Iron Bowl. “I want Tuscaloosa to be well on the mend by fall so I don’t have to feel guilty when we beat them.”

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Among the things blown away by the storm—and given back—was a girl’s third birthday.

This was the first year Carolynn Wenndt really understood what a birthday was. She had picked out her Dora the Explorer cake and a star-shaped piñata. Every week at the grocery store, she found a new treat to put in it. But on the day she turned 3, she learned that fixing a hole in the roof must come before a party.

Then Carolynn’s grandma, Linda Patterson, heard about the man who started Alabama’s Lost Birthdays. Clint DeShazo, a Birmingham commercial real estate agent, realized that even when the big things come undone—especially when the big things fall—the little things, like birthday cakes, matter all the more.

Thanks to Clint, Carolynn blew out the candles on a donated cake at a park where the trees still had branches. She unwrapped a Dora blanket hand-stitched for her by a volunteer from a group called Blankets for Bama Babies. Her mother, too, received a gift: a few hours to try to forget about that hole in the roof.

“I hate that this storm ever happened, but it drew people closer,” said Linda. “We’re all neighbors now.”

Linda joined Clint at Alabama’s Lost Birthdays. She arranges everything from a party-in-a-box to a bash for a 3-year-old boy who helped pull his mama from the rubble.

Her next project? Making her husband grow a long, white beard.

“These kids are still gonna have to have Christmas.”

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