CLAY, Ala. – Survivors still haunted by memories of last year's tornado outbreak that killed 250 in Alabama are writing checks, donating diapers and standing over hot grills to help victims of the latest twisters to pummel the state.
The April 27 outbreak of 62 tornadoes that swept across the state in waves caused more than $1 billion in damage, hurt more than 2,000 people and destroyed or damaged nearly 24,000 homes. The storms leveled neighborhoods and virtually wiped out some towns. The latest outbreak of at least 10 tornadoes this week ravaged central Alabama, killing two people near Birmingham and destroying or badly damaging more than 460 homes.
Rick Johnson is still living with relatives and friends after two tornadoes last year killed four people and splintered his home in rural Cordova, where the downtown area is still in shambles. When the latest twisters hit this week, Johnson stepped up. He volunteered to cook 200 pounds of donated chicken and help deliver hot meals to volunteers, workers and storm victims in Center Point, about 45 miles from his hometown.
"You know what they're going through. You know what they feel. It's hard to describe," said Johnson, 55.
Leaders from President Barack Obama on down praised the generosity and volunteering spirit of Alabamians after last year's deadly tornado outbreak. The people who needed help last year, many of whom are still removing debris and rebuilding, have been among those lending a hand this time around. The Alabama Emergency Management Agency said 2,511 victims of last year's storms were still living in temporary housing.
For Leah Bromley, helping out victims of the latest twisters is all about repaying kindness. Mountains of donated clothes and furniture flooded her hometown of Tuscaloosa after a twister killed nearly 50 people there last year.
"I just really believe in paying it forward," said Bromley, who started Rebuild Tuscaloosa, a nonprofit organization formed after last year's twisters to solicit donations and distribute money and services for relief. Now, it's helping out in communities far from Tuscaloosa.
A University of Alabama sorority from Tuscaloosa gave donations to help victims of the latest twisters northeast of Birmingham, and a group brought more from Cullman, which also got slammed last year. A school in a Walker County town that was hard hit last year donated supplies and made sandwiches for survivors in Oak Grove, which was battered both in 2011 and 2012.
Mary Foster couldn't go home for weeks after a tornado badly damaged her home in Tuscaloosa, and she's just now settling back into a normal routine nine months later. That didn't stop her from writing a check to a relief fund this week.
Foster said she was compelled to help because so many people helped her last year, including Bromley's organization and Habitat for Humanity, which helped fix her home.
"I was glad to be able to be a blessing to them because so many people were a blessing to me," Foster said.
Foster's house in east Tuscaloosa was badly damaged when a twister cut a wide swath through the city of nearly 90,000 last year, forcing her and her two daughters to move in first with a brother, then into a motel. Her home is now repaired, but broken trees and splintered, vacant homes dot the rolling hills all through her Alberta City neighborhood, providing a constant reminder of the terror that day.
"When I came out and saw people scream and hollering. ... Oh, my," said Foster, her voice trailing off.
Thanks to contributions from people in tornado-scarred towns and elsewhere, the gym is now full at Bridge Point Church in Clay, which opened a distribution center after a twister last Monday slammed neighborhoods including one where a 16-year-old girl was killed and scores of homes were destroyed or damaged. A steady stream of storm victims came by on Wednesday gathering items off of a gym floor covered with tables full of cleaning supplies and buckets, baby food and diapers, tarps and canned foods.
Pastor Mark Higdon said the outpouring of donations has been gratifying, particularly considering how many Alabama families are still struggling to recover from the tornadoes last year, which leveled entire neighborhoods and virtually wiped out some towns. The church's gym was empty at 8 a.m. Tuesday, a day after the twisters struck, and it was overflowing 24 hours later.
"The generosity of people is unbelievable," Higdon said. "They're just more than willing to give back."
A few minutes after Higdon spoke, two trucks and a trailer loaded with donations pulled into the church parking lot with donations from Rebuild Tuscaloosa, Bromley's group. Wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with a map of Alabama and the date of last year's twisters, Brian DeWitt helped unload boxes of food, kitchen supplies and other items. DeWitt's home was spared, but friends lost theirs and he's been helping with the relief.
DeWitt said news of the January twisters stirred up a lot of emotions from last year. Sitting back and letting someone else help wasn't an option.
"The tornadoes last April 27 kind of shook Tuscaloosa up pretty well," he said. "We all got a renewed sense of community, which is not only the people you live around and love but also anyone else you can touch in your everyday life. I knew it was important after hearing about the tornado to get up here and do what we can."