The destruction around her was unfathomable. What once stood as her homestead--a modest house made of brick adorned with neatly trimmed bushes and whimsical garden art--now lay in a jumbled pile of twisted metal, bricks and scattered belongings. Almost oblivious to her indescribably tragic surroundings, Mrs. Ann sits in a tan leather recliner on the corner of her lot showing me pictures of how her house used to look. It's hard to believe the pictures are just a few weeks old. Hard to believe that in a freak moment of funnel cloud meeting ground, the life of an elderly woman in Hackleburg, Alabama has been forever changed.
As has mine.
As I drove on Hwy 43 South on my way to assist in the disaster relief efforts in this small town, I marveled at the beauty of the landscape. Lush green foilage enveloped rocky outcroppings and shimmering ponds lit up fertile pastures along the highway. As I passed the sign that read "Hackleburg City Limits" I was pleasantly surprised at the spring-like beauty of these rolling hills. It was then that I crested the last hill before entering town. What I saw defies explanation. Before my eyes was a swath of destruction that looked to be straight off a movie set. Leveled buildings interwined with piles of rubble and debris as far as the eye could see. Tears filled my eyes as I realized just how comprehensive the damages were. The schools? Gone. The stores? Gone. Gas stations? Gone. 80% of the homes in the town? Leveled. An unbelieveable sight at best.
The work of the day allowed me to meet some of the most remarkable people I have ever had the pleasure to come in contact with. I mentioned Mrs. Ann and her famous recliner. I embraced this woman for reasons that were initially unclear-- that was, until I started hearing her story. Lost her husband three years ago, no family to speak of and now all her worldy possessions lie in ruin a few feet from her. She had weathered the storm in a neighbor's storm shelter wrapped around two other elderly ladies--one of whom was 93. I listened as she recalled them linking their bodies together as they held the storm door closed to avoid being sucked out into the tornado. I would pass by periodically and check in on her, slather sun screen on her already toasty arms and neck and give her a much-needed shoulder massage to relieve her tension...if only for a few minutes. Mrs. Ann was a trooper and I felt very protective of her as we helped find anything worth salvaging in the debris.
A couple doors down stood a sprite of a lady in a light pink jacket and sporty sun visor. Ms. Geraldine was there to oversee the bulldozing and salvage of her family home...where her parents had lived and where she had created many a special memory. We spent a lot of time getting to know this special lady and I even cried with her as she broke down describing what her parents would have felt about all the destruction. I shared her pain as we looked at what was left of her family home and it reaffirmed why I was there. Ms. Geraldine is a class act and I am better for having met her.
Thennnn...there is Mrs. Pat. This woman begged us to help her find her "plates"--which I had to share were all broken and strown about the yard. Mrs. Pat was decked out in work boots, leggings and an oversized blue shirt. As I balanced on what used to be her kitchen wall, I lifted a fallen door and Pat exclaimed "you found my straw hat!!!" There, pinned under the wooden door was a half-bent, stained straw hat which she promptly placed atop her head. She was quite the jokester so I followed suit and tossed her a box of cake mix inquiring when she would bake it up for us...or why she hadn't "bothered" to straighten up if she knew she was having "company" (us). She smiled a warm smile and exclaimed, "if you can't laugh about things, life's not worth living." She is, without a doubt, my new hero.
I learned many things today. I learned that you can make a snap decision, jump in the car, drive hours away alone and make an unexpected difference. I learned that collegiate rivalries mean nothing when neighbor is helping neighbor recover pieces of their life strown about by nature's fury. I learned that organized chaos is the result of imperfect people doing a perfect job of trying to help others the best they know how. But, most of all, I learned that a smile, a handshake, a hug or even just a kind word can make every bit of difference in the lives of hurting people. I loved on people today. I cried with people today. I spent twenty minutes searching for Mrs. Ann's dentures and Mrs. Pat's dishes and sorting through pictures with Ms. Geraldine. And you know what? It may not have made a huge difference in the lives of these survivors.....
But it sure did in mine.