Alabama Tornado 2011

Tuscaloosa, Alabama

John Cloughen’s story

“You give but little when you give of your possessions. It is when you give of yourself that you truly give.”

– Khalil Gibran

Nearly everyone who was in Tuscaloosa, Alabama on April 27, 2011 has a story about the great tornado that hit that state at 5:30 p.m. The largest such event in many decades, this was one of many tornadoes that hit the state and region that day. Although Alabama is not new to tornadic activity, this time, it was different.

“We just didn’t believe it would be this bad or even show up here,” was a theme that we heard from the survivors many times. There were many who, with a video camera or iPhone in hand, nearly filmed their own deaths as the mile-wide tornado, ostensibly many comfortable miles away, was on top of them faster than they could have imagined. Moving at ground speeds of up to 60 miles per hour and with wind speeds of up to 260 miles per hour, many were caught flat-footed and unprepared for this F5 tsunami of wind.

Nearly all recalled the terrifying reality that this was in fact happening-their lives were in grave danger and that for many, they had only minutes or seconds to react. They were the lucky ones, if you can count the many thousands of residents who lost everything, as lucky. In Tuscaloosa, 41 people were not so lucky, and that number climbed to nearly 360 across the Southern states. Another 1,000 were injured.

Having never deployed inside the United States, Reach Out WorldWide decided to send a two-man recon team to the impact zone in Tuscaloosa before sending a whole team. That decision, in hindsight, was the key to a very successful operation. The team landed on April 30, 2011, and immediately began surveying the state and the areas most heavily impacted. They determined early on that our medical aid capability would be unnecessary and that what was desperately needed was a clean-up effort on a massive scale.

The recon team made contact with local authorities, as well as church groups leading humanitarian and clean up efforts, and a professor from the University of Alabama named Riz Shakir. Professor Shakir, impressed with our team, our professionalism and knowledge regarding disaster relief, immediately agreed to be our liaison during the operation. His extensive local contacts, motivation and energy ensured that we would find plenty of opportunity to help those most in need. In addition, the recon team was able to reserve cars and hotel rooms (which were in short supply) for the soon-to-be arriving team. They assessed the clean-up needs and were able to provide us with a list of equipment needed for the jobs that would await us. Lucas Wimer (ROWW team leader and operations manager), in conjunction with Paul Walker, was able to purchase over $15,000 worth of tools and equipment within a 24-hour period of time-a miraculous feat considering all of the other logistical preparations that go into putting a team on the ground.

On April 30, after initial reports from recon, I received a text message from Lucas directing me to assemble a team for a week-long deployment. The team consisted of myself and fellow firefighters Grady Marquez, Dave Forrester, J.D. Dorfman, as well as our construction/heavy equipment experts Lucas Wimer (a man whose many talents are hard to pigeonhole into five categories, let alone one), Daryl Talbot, Rhett Walker, Tim Morelli, Dustin King, Anthony Lovdokken (Chovie), and of course, ROWW co-founder Paul Walker, who joined up with us a few days later. We were joined early on by Vincent Shakir, as well as college students and residents of Tuscaloosa who multiplied our force and efficiency.

Lucas arranged for flights for the team, and he and Chovie and Dustin volunteered to make the 38-hour drive from Burbank to Tuscaloosa, Alabama in Paul Walker’s Raptor pick up truck. They packed the truck with equipment and tools and arrived with scarcely room for one more nail. When we opened the back of the truck the morning they arrived, we could hardly believe our eyes. There were chain saws (STIHL, of course), ropes, pulleys, tarps, generators, circular saws, concrete cutters, Sawzalls, pry bars, hand-tools, fuel cans, and much, much more. They had arrived with almost everything the recon team had ordered.

They were road worn and weary, but wanted nothing more than a shower, some food and to start working. Lucas does not start slow and build. He fires out of the gates and does not stop working until he has done everything he and the team came to do. Fed and washed, we were rolling out of the hotel about an hour later to meet up with Riz Shakir at the church.

We showed up at the church command center in uniform with a truckload of equipment and a team itching to work. We had a local liaison and were looking for an assignment. Thanks to the persuasiveness of Riz and Lucas, we were able to bypass some of their formalities and get out on the road with an assignment.

We arrived at our first house and found a yard covered in downed trees, but a relatively intact structure. We were assigned a group of young people from the church to assist us and they worked hard beside us while we cleared the yard of trees and debris. This was our first opportunity to break out the saws and we were very happy to be working. We cleared the yard within a couple of hours and were ready to move on. During dinner that night, we discussed our goals and objectives for seeking out future assignments and decided our efforts should be directed toward helping people get back into livable spaces and hopefully out of shelters.

Day two, we got the assignment we had been looking for. We were sent to clear a house that belonged to a senior woman who had no help. One of the first things we learned was that we were in a low-income area whose residents had very limited means. The tornado had missed most of the affluent areas of the city and the poorest citizens suffered almost all of the major damage. Many of these people did not have insurance, and if they did, we learned that many of the insurance policies would pay for the structure to be rebuilt, but not for the clearing of the trees that were in or around the structure, or for the demolition of the structure that was too damaged to save.

We arrived at this designated house to find a gigantic tree through the roof, the attic and the living room. Alabama is a forested state and the trees there are serious. Not only was this monster compromising the entire structure, the front yard was covered in trees and debris, including a boat, so that you could hardly see the house or enter the front door. It was obvious from the outset that Rhett and Tim were the persons most knowledgeable when it came to this type of work. They took command of the scene and directed the crew with a knowledge and expertise borne from many years on a construction site. They attacked the tree as if it had insulted their mothers’ integrity. We were the players and they the player-coaches.

We went to work, and before the day was done, we cleared the entire tree from the house, inside and out, and one team member suffered a relatively serious injury that could have been much worse. We began to learn some lessons about what we were dealing with. One thing I realized was that working with a chainsaw on a roof on the fire ground was wholly different operation than working with a chain saw on a tree, or on a tree through a badly damaged roof. If not done properly, the saws have a tendency to bind in the tree, creating a difficult and time-consuming recovery effort. We learned that these trees are under high tension, spring loaded and pressurized, so a wrong cut, or one that was not properly thought out, could send a huge chunk of wood slinging toward your head, catapulting over a roof edge or rolling on top of you with little time or room for escape.

It became clear early on that this was a very dangerous operation we were involved with and that the learning curve was relatively steep. I felt as if my productivity was being compromised by my ignorance of how tree cutting should be handled and it started to feel like only a matter of time until the saw or the tree, or both, got me. Luckily, the Universe sent us a teacher in the guise of an ex-logger from Colorado named Tom Stanton. We met Tom in the parking lot of the church where we staging when he offered to sharpen our saws. Up to that point, we had been ineffectively trying to sharpen the chains by hand. We happily agreed and he made quick work of making those chains sharper than they had been at any time previous.

While watching Tom’s expertise at work, I asked him his story and began picking his brain about saws and tree cutting. He was an encyclopedia of knowledge and experience. Moving around the country to disaster areas where he knows he can be of service, he leaves his sharpening business in Colorado and packs up his mini-van and goes out on the road, sharpening saws at no cost to anyone but himself. I queried him about tree cutting and shared with him some of the frustrations I had been experiencing. In a very short time, I felt like I had learned enough to be much safer and more efficient. He offered to give an impromptu class to the whole group, which we gratefully accepted.

Before the class began, we had not only our group, but 10 or so other volunteers who were eager to learn what Tom had to teach. I think it is safe to say that in that half hour or so we spent with Tom, our productivity and ability to operate safely increased many fold. We saw him constantly throughout the rest of the trip, as he would make special trips to come to our work-sites and get us sharpened up. Tom was one of the many amazing human beings we were lucky to have met on our trip and we couldn’t have thanked him enough.

Workday three started out in the parking lot staging area of Soma church. By way of the constant recon efforts of Lucas and Riz to find those most in need of help, they attached our group to the incident command of a church in the middle of a devastated neighborhood called the Holt district. When we pulled into the parking lot, we were amazed at the incident command that had been set up. They had large tents with clothing and personal supplies, construction supplies, all day chow (some of the best food imaginable too, by the way), and an operations room where needs were coordinated and work orders were generated in an organized, efficient manner. We got a handful of assignments and rolled out to find a house that had a giant tree over a high roof that would test everything that we had learned so far.

Having lost team member Rhett the day before after a fall through a roof resulting in a broken ankle, this job was our most daunting and dangerous yet. Tim had taken some of the group to another site and we thought we were on our own with this one, but we were wrong. We had been on the roof only five minutes assessing the tree and roof structure, trying to figure out where to start and how to stay alive while doing it, when up comes Rhett, dragging one leg, and ready to manage us whether he could stand or not. We were lucky that he has a high pain tolerance and a degree of denial not seen in normal people. We would have been much worse off without his guidance.

Looking down after a few hours of cutting up top and heavy clearing down below, we saw our man Chovie (Anthony Lovdokken) roll up in a Bobcat tractor. Chovie is a Bobcat operator in real life and had been working constantly since we arrived to try and secure this, his missing appendage. He finally pulled enough strings to get one, and our productivity increased exponentially. From that point on, we were a cutting and clearing machine. The amount of work he was able to do in a short period of time with that piece of equipment was a beautiful thing to behold, and he was in heaven. We finished that house, no one died, and we were able to tarp up the roof so that the residents could move back in.

The rest of the week proceeded in similar fashion. We cut hundreds of trees, moved tons of debris, demolished a house and cleared mobile home pads of rubble so that they could move new trailers in for shelter. We worked hard, side by side with residents and students and volunteers from other cities and states.

In addition to all of the work we got done and the people we were able to help, the success of this trip was important for the group because of what we learned. Our past deployments had been to provide medical care to earthquake and tsunami victims in Haiti, Chile and Indonesia. This wasn’t just our first non-medical mission, but also our first in the United States.

The recon team was key to our understanding of the needs on the ground and making connections prior to our arrival. We learned that we can actually function very efficiently by hooking up with local groups. We now have a cache of equipment and tools and a group of dedicated construction experts that will allow us to participate in non-medical events. We identified the need for a trailer that we can store and organize our equipment for transport. We used a new walkie talkie system that allowed us to communicate much more effectively than we had on any past deployment. We made good friends and contacts from around the country that we will hopefully see again and work with in the future.

This is my third deployment with ROWW and we continue to develop and improve our operations and delivery on each trip. It is an honor and a privilege to spend time with so many professional, dedicated individuals striving toward our common goal of reaching out to those in need around the world.