Tornado victims in splintered Southern towns say volunteers are ensuring they are well-fed and warm at night, whether by refilling blood pressure medicine or patrolling neighborhoods in a grocery-filled pickup truck. At least a few, though, say they need more from the government: Help getting into their homes and cleaning up endless debris.
Across the twister-ravaged south, students and church groups aggressively tended to those who needed it most, clearing away wreckage and handing out food and water. Wednesday’s tornadoes marked the second-deadliest day of twisters in US history, leaving 342 people dead across seven states — including 250 in Alabama. Thousands were hurt, and hundreds of homes and businesses have vanished into rubble.
Federal Emergency Management Agency workers provided information to people in shelters about how to apply for help. National Guard soldiers stood watch, searched for survivors and helped sift through debris. Churches transformed into buzzing community hubs.
In Tuscaloosa, a Red Cross shelter was distributing clothes and providing counseling for people like Carol Peck, 55, and her 77-year-old mother. She said the shelter’s first aid station even refilled her blood pressure pills without her having to ask.
She can’t explain how it happened, but she suspects her clinic contacted the shelter.
“Evidently, because I sure didn’t call,” she said. “They knew I was here. I don’t know how, but they found me.”
In Ringgold, Georgia, Poplar Springs Baptist Church had become an informal help center. Crews were dispatched from the church, some with chain saws to chop through the debris, others with bottled water and food. Inside the gymnasium, a barbecue buffet was feeding those without power.
The University of Alabama’s athletic department was pitching in around hard-hit Tuscaloosa, with more than 50 athletic training students giving Gatorade, bottled water and protein bars to residents.
“Anything they have to give athletes, they’re giving away,” said Jenny Sanders, one of the volunteers.
And most were grateful to get whatever they could.
As some tried to clear the rubble and sort through belongings, others took on the task of burying the dozens who died. Several funerals were being held in Rainsville in northeastern Alabama, including services for 70-year-old Hubert Whooten, his 70-year-old wife, Juanita, and her mother, Lethel Izell, 86.
“They were just normal, hardworking country folk,” family friend Kevin Black said outside the Rainsville Funeral Home. “If they seen you, they’re gonna call you by your name and [ask:], ‘How’re you doing?’ That’s how it is around here.”
However, planning funerals was a struggle for many as they dealt with destroyed homes. There were also 35 deaths in Mississippi, 34 in Tennessee, 15 in Georgia, five in Virginia, two in Louisiana and one in Kentucky.
“A few of the families I met with, they’ve lost everything,” said Jason Wyatt, manager of Tuscaloosa Memorial Chapel. “It’s hard for me to hold my composure. They don’t have clothing or anything.”
Clarence Plump’s wife was among those who died when the tornadoes hit Tuscaloosa. The 36-year-old steel worker said his wife was a loving person who would go out of her way to help others. He was rummaging through his family’s possessions on Saturday and found a few photos and little bicycles he put on a flatbed trailer hooked to his truck.
“Right now I’m just trying to straighten out my family and get back on track,” he said.