“You cannot help with a burden unless you come close to burdened people.”
– Timothy Keller
“I’m in my car at corner on McFarland. Milo’s Hamburgers isn’t there anymore. Hobby Lobby is the only thing still standing at Woods Square Shopping Center. Big Lots, Full Moon Barbecue — piles of garbage where those places were.”
– Phil Owen, Tuscaloosa resident
Years ago, there was a small chapter of Habitat for Humanity in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. They built a couple of homes each year, making home ownership affordable for families who would otherwise find that out of reach. That all changed during the late afternoon of Wednesday, April 27, 2011, when a large, violent, multiple-vortex EF4 tornado struck Tuscaloosa, Birmingham, and small communities in between. The 1.5-mile wide tornado was one of 355 in the 2011 Super Outbreak, the largest in United States history. With estimated maximum sustained winds of 190 mph, the tornado cut through the heart of Tuscaloosa, devastating everything in its path. Along its 80.7-mile path of destruction, the tornado leveled subdivisions and businesses, killing 64 people and injuring 1,500 others. Among the 44 people killed in Tuscaloosa were six University of Alabama students. The $2.4 billion of property damage made it the costliest single tornado in United States history at that time. A month later, the Joplin, Missouri EF5 tornado caused $2.8 billion in damage.
After the first responders responded and the initial shock wore off, it was time for Tuscaloosa to rebuild. With this enormous need facing the community and an influx of donated money and grants, it was time for the sleepy little chapter of Habitat to put on its big boy pants. They added staff, ramped up their volunteer program, and began disaster relief on a large scale for such a small town. They began building homes in communities that had been leveled by the tornado. They did rehab and repair work on homes that could be salvaged. And they continued working in other areas of town where people needed a helping hand to be able to own their own home. Since the tornado, Habitat has had over 15,000 volunteers from 50 states and 6 continents join in on the rebuilding effort. They are now building 14-15 homes each year, and recently finished work on their 100th home.
We rolled into town as RV Care-A-Vanners, a group of RV-owning volunteers who travel the country working with local Habitat for Humanity affiliates. The organization has a nifty web site showing the location and dates of scheduled builds around the country, how many RVers are needed, and how to sign up. As Tennessee Volunteer fans, spending two weeks in Tuscaloosa is no easy task. It’s like having posters of the guy who stole your girlfriend all over your house. Tide fans have been on the mountaintop celebrating multiple national football championships for the past several years. Tennessee has won six national championships, but the last one came the year President Clinton was impeached. Alabama has beaten Tennessee nine straight times. For most Tide fans, football is not like religion…it is religion. There are mall stores dedicated to all things Crimson Tide…along with Tide clothing, bumper stickers, gas station signs, and dishwasher detergent. They greet each other with “Roll Tide” in the same way normal people would say, “Hello” or “Good afternoon, friend.” Coach Nick Saban, Alabama royalty, is paid $6.9 million per year, which comes out to $492,857 per game. To put that in perspective, he makes as much for one game as 22 Tuscaloosans earn, on average, for the entire year. Yes, football is a big deal here. Fortunately, two decades of my college and pro football teams being mediocre, and an increased emphasis on other pursuits, have caused sports to drop a notch or two on things I lose sleep over. While you’ll never catch us saying, “Roll Tide,” we don’t mind rolling with the Tide when it comes to disaster relief and helping a community get back on its feet.
On a Habitat project, you never know what type of project you’ll work on, what tasks you’ll be assigned, or who else will join you on the team. We spent our first three days in west Tuscaloosa working on a house that was nearing completion. From the start, I could tell this Habitat affiliate had strong leadership, great teamwork, and its collective act together. Our team leader began with a prayer, and then told us about Habitat in general and this home in particular. The soon-to-be homeowner, a single mom with a young son, would receive the land for free and a zero-interest mortgage on the home itself. Future owners are required to work 250 hours on the project (or other Habitat projects), which helps involve them in the process and have a sense of pride and ownership with the finished product. In addition to the future homeowner, our team members included five young Mennonite men, an AmeriCorps worker, Alabama students, and the Habitat team leaders/staff members. There were other volunteers, although we were the only RV Care-a-Vanners. Lil Jan spent her time inside painting, cleaning, and putting the finishing touches on the interior of the home. I spent most of my time outside, laying sod and landscaping the yard. One of our co-workers was a lady who had received another Habitat home and was working to get her required hours. We learned that her home was leveled and she was tossed 25 yards across the street by the tornado. First responders found her unconscious, buried in rubble and just a few inches from a power line. Now blind in one eye, she spent a month in a coma and was the last storm victim to be released from the hospital. She told me she was just thankful to be alive, and realized she had been given a second shot at life.
During introductions, it was mildly awkward going after the Mennonites who, among other beliefs, are staunchly pacifist. They don’t believe in war as a solution to any problem under any circumstance. I resisted the urge to introduce myself as, “Steve Johnson, Air Force Retired, third-generation warmonger.” Actually, after an experience I had being screened for jury duty in Tampa a few years back, it was kind of nice falling on the war-fighting end of the spectrum. Queue the flashback… Our case involved a crime committed with a handgun, and the prosecuting attorney asked each prospective juror whether they owned a gun. As a gun owner (sort of), I raised my hand along with about 15 or so of the 30 people being screened. The attorney then went down the line asking each of us who had raised our hand to describe our weapons. The first guy mentioned several shotguns used for hunting. The next guy mentioned a bow, a shotgun, and a variety of pistols used for protection and targeting practice. One guy had a few assault rifles. One lady had a 9 mil and a couple of rifles. Another guy had a small armory and took a solid two minutes going over his arsenal of weapons. With each prospective juror, the numbers and calibers of weapons seemed to escalate, and they were all pretty proud of their collections. And then it came to prospective juror #11, Mr. Steven Johnson, who answered, “I have a high-powered pellet gun.” My answer was met with laughter by the other jury contestants, both attorneys, the judge, and even the 17-year-old defendant. In an attempt to defend my honor and avoid having to surrender a man card, I offered, “It has a scope.” More laughter. More humiliation. The defendant, facing prison time, laughed so hard he leaned forward and put his head on the table. So, needless to say, I was okay being a non-pacifist on our Habitat team, someone willing to fight and die for his country…or at least shoot the enemy’s eye out.
Actually, the Mennonite guys were extremely cool…friendly, hard working, and lots of fun. They are in Tuscaloosa specifically to do volunteer work, with Habitat and the local hospital, on 6-month rotations. They have a local Mennonite host family that supports them, and then they return home (to Canada, Idaho, and other locations) and are replaced by someone else. It’s a volunteer program, done out of the goodness of their hearts, and not mandated by their religion. It’s a pretty neat system, and Lil Jan and I enjoyed working with them and getting to know them.
Our second project was to overhaul and straighten up the bone yard, a Habitat field headquarters full of lumber, scraps, siding, signs, etc. We basically chased away four mice and a few hundred roaches while turning a giant mess into what could be described as an outdoor Lowes. Future teams working in that tornado-decimated neighborhood should have a much easier time finding what they’re looking for.
Our third project was to replace a failing roof for Annie, a nearly 93-year-old widow living on the west side of town. She told us she doesn’t have much time left on this earth, and that she doesn’t like having rain come down in her bedroom. That’s pretty motivating. With the help of young people from Northridge High School in Tuscaloosa and students from the University of Georgia, we helped ensure Annie would stay dry for however long she has left.
On this project, our team leader was Peter, a master carpenter/handyman and quite frankly, one of the most interesting and talented people we’ve met this year. I admire people who are really good at what they do, whether that’s singing, shooting a 3-pointer or building something. Peter can look at a construction challenge and in a matter of seconds, know what to do, how to do it, and which tools are needed. On top of that, he has considerable people skills, a necessity when working with various volunteer groups of all shapes and sizes. He patiently taught us a variety of new skills, including setting up scaffolding, working various power tools, framing a porch, tearing off the old roof, and laying the new one. After using a nail gun for the first time, it’s only a matter of time that Lil Jan will ask for one for Christmas. Peter used to do high-end construction projects for wealthy clients like Celine Dion, Versace and Sylvester Stallone. Once, while he was working on Stallone’s $17 million home, a delivery truck arrived from a taxidermist with a real, stuffed 17-foot giraffe. While all that was interesting, Peter’s life changed while building homes in Biloxi, Mississippi post-Hurricane Katrina. He realized his true calling was not high-end construction for fancy celebrity homes, but rather constructing and repairing homes for people truly in need. So he ended up working for Habitat Tuscaloosa and they are all the better because of it.
The Habitat team was a blast to work with and made us feel right at home. In fact, we were invited to a graduation party for an Alabama student who has volunteered with Habitat for several years. The Mennonite guys were there too, along with more than a dozen of their fellow Mennonites from a nearby Mennonite community. We devoured some Alabama barbecue and listened to the Mennonite team sing Christmas carols. Then, on our last night in town, Peter had us over for some excellent Korean food and games of banana-grams. To top off all that kindness, our RV park neighbor brought me over a belt with a giant “S” on the large buckle, because he knew my name was Steve. Although the belt is over 50 inches long, I appreciated his gesture. That night, I tried the belt on for Janet, who commented, “That’s a Big S belt,” not realizing that phrase sounds borderline inappropriate when spoken.
It was great learning several new skills on a variety of projects while helping those in need…even if they are Crimson Tide fans. It was also pretty neat seeing people from different generations, genders, ethnic backgrounds, and religions team up to be part of the solution. The tornado dealt a heavy blow to Tuscaloosa and knocked it down, but it got back on its feet and is courageously putting the pieces back together. We thoroughly enjoyed our time rolling with Habitat and the Tide fans in Alabama, and plan to return some day. But at our core, we remain just volunteers…Tennessee Volunteers! So Merry Christmas…and Go Vols!
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