What Stands in a Storm: When the Winds Died Down

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Rick Bragg shares his personal account of how his neighborhood was destroyed by the tornado, and how neighbors everywhere helped each other through the nightmare.
Rick Bragg
Tuscaloosa, Alabama Tornado Damage
Rick Bragg in front of his home in Tuscaloosa, AL after the April 27th storms.
Photo: Jason Wallis

Outside, minutes after the winds died down, people gathered in the street. Tammy Elebash—our boy took her daughter to prom—held a phone. “I see the Pitts…I see the Petrovics…yes, Mrs. Brannon is fine. She’s on my arm….” Inez Rovegno and John Dolly had grabbed their wedding album and crawled into the tub. Mary Pitts had hidden with her triplets in a hallway as flying glass stabbed the walls. Beverly Banks had held to her big, white dog as her house disintegrated around her.

Then, one by one, people noticed the change. The once verdant place was laid open, stripped, flattened. You could see things you had never seen, like a water tower that used to be invisible behind the curtains of green. It was like the storm had picked these people up and set them down someplace ugly, broken, new. How awful it would have been, to have landed there alone.

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I have seldom felt helpless in my life. I hold to the hillbilly standard that there is no situation so hopeless that, through perseverance, I cannot make worse. It is why my wife will not let me have a chain saw—“You will cut off your own head”—and will not allow me on the roof. So there I stood, giant trees across my driveway, my roof naked, helpless. What happened next still seems like magic.

Within a minute of stepping into my yard, I was met by a never-ending stream of neighbors, some I only slightly knew, who left their own crises to help me clean up mine. There are too many to list here—I would leave someone out—but they came, capable men who knew how to run a saw, or twist a wrench. Some came, worked like a dog, and vanished before I could thank them. I hope they are reading this, men and women who lifted and dragged tons of trees, and almost killed me and my stepson Jake, trying to keep up. Every church group in Tuscaloosa, it seemed, clawed rubble out of my yard, or out of the playground across the street, meaning I can never again say anything mean about the Episcopalians. I came to enjoy the company. That first afternoon, I straightened up from tugging on an unmoving limb to see Allen McClendon, the husband of my son’s music teacher, saw through a tree that blocked my drive. He brought his father, Rick, and an old, brown dog named B.J., and we told duck hunting stories and I don’t think any lies, but it was hard to tell over the roar of the saws. And then they, too, were gone, to help someone else, somewhere down the road.

There was no end to this generosity. Food just appeared. No one would take a dime. The college students on our street, the ones I had yelled at for driving too fast, cooked all the meat from our melting freezers, and let me pet their puppy. Mrs. Cochrane’s Emily asked if we needed a generator. Our boy’s friends brought gasoline. Folks with gas water heaters offered hot showers. That night, I went to sleep under the luxury of an electric fan. The next morning, my neighbors were in my yard before I was.

So I wonder. If a street is made of people, not oaks and tulip trees, how can this place not be as fine as it ever was? I think the best I heard it put was by Mary Pitts.

“I always thought we lived on a good street,” she said. “Now I know.”

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A few days after the storm, on a Sunday morning, I awoke to a tap-tap-tap on my roof. I should have gone to see what it was about, but after a while the rhythmic tapping got to be almost soothing, and I ducked inside a dream. Later, I learned that my neighbor James Mize had scaled the roof and tacked down some covering that had blown loose.

He did not ask me where I went to church, or how I voted, or who my family was. He did not climb that ladder for money, or attention, or even thanks.

He did it, he said, because it looked like rain.

Continue Reading What Stands in a Storm: Faith