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)
The Things That Tear Our World Apart Also Bring Us Together
<strong>Phil Campbell, AL; Tuesday, June 7:</strong> Carrie Lynn Morgan lost her memory quilt to the twister that took her mother's house. Leah Meyer found it 75 miles away.
Photo: Kim Cross

Little pieces of Mississippi fell on Alabama. Alabama rained down on Tennessee. Photo by photo, bill by bill, scraps of lives were picked out of azaleas and barbed-wire fences. One of them was a memory quilt that flew over two counties and landed in a muddy backyard in Athens, Alabama.

When she found it, Leah Meyer saw through the rips and stains, saw the life unfolding in photos—a baby, a little girl in a pageant, a teenager playing basketball. The bobcat emblem was a clue that led to Phil Campbell High School, 75 miles away. Leah ran her fingers over the embroidered name—Carrie Lynn—and knew she had to find her.

On a 98-degree day in June, Leah brought the quilt home, to the place where it took flight. She unfolded it on a flat, dry place where a house once stood in the rural town of Phil Campbell. She had tried to clean it, but decided the rips and stains were another chapter in its beautiful story.

Cradling a newborn son, Carrie Lynn Morgan, now a mother of two, reached out to accept one of the last mementos that remained of her childhood. She had lost her house, and all the memories in it, to a fire some years ago. The quilt survived at her mother’s house. She left it there, where she thought it would be safer. When April’s tornado took that house—thank goodness no one was home—it left nothing behind but sky.

Leah did not know that story when she posted a picture of the quilt on a Facebook lost-and-found page. Carrie Lynn did not see that picture. She had no power, and her phone was dead. The news found her, though, through the old-fashioned grapevine, a little luck, and a friend who spotted a familiar smile before the post rolled too far off the screen.

“This quilt is my life, my journey through everything,” she told Leah. “I see my baby pictures and realize how much my kids look like me.”

Leah smiled. “I’m glad we found you.”

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It was like this all across the South, as strangers helped victims pick up the pieces of their lives.

Nothing was too big or too small to give. Hairbows for Hackleburg. Free haircuts in Pleasant Grove. Portrait sessions for families whose memories were stolen by the wind. A 13-year-old girl from Arkansas found a temporary home for a displaced family. Five friends in Mississippi filled a truck. Someone bought a brand-new house for a person he would never meet. A man who had lost everything to his own life’s storms—divorce, a lost job, a wreck that left him in a wheelchair—gave blood. It was all he had left to give.

“The best thing was how we Southerners reacted immediately to the tragedy,” said James Spann, a beloved Alabama weatherman who saw his followers through the storm, first as a modern town crier who saved lives with 140-character warnings read when the power failed, and after, linking help with the people who needed it, one tweet at a time.

On the day he describes as “like the state was dodging bullets from hell,” James saw not just the storm of his lifetime, but another humbling phenomenon: “neighbors helping neighbors. Our people knew what to do, and how to do it.”

It was not only Southerners. A Los Angeles-based group called Calabama held a bikini car wash to raise funds for Tuscaloosa. Las Vegas gave cash. Texas sent gas cards. One New York lady dispatched a tractor trailer full of tarps, just in time for the first Alabama rain. Japan sent 8,000 blankets to Alabama, a thank-you gift for all the help Americans had sent in the wake of the March tsunami.