Town to town, person to person, strangers helped victims pick up the pieces of their lives.
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.
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.”