Tuscaloosa Disaster Relief

A panoramic view of all the volunteers here this week
A panoramic view of all the volunteers here this week

Tom and I have been in Tuscaloosa AL since Sunday working on a Habitat for Humanity Disaster Relief build.  When Tom and I first thought about doing disaster relief work, we envisioned being on the front lines – heading in just as the event headed out.  But we soon realized that we would prefer to be part of the rebuilding effort, not the initial clean-up.  Thus the Tuscaloosa Disaster Relief build.

Tuscaloosa Tornado on April 27, 2011
Tuscaloosa Tornado on April 27, 2011

On Wednesday, April 27, 2011, a large, multiple-vortex wedge tornado touched down in rural Greene County, AL, and tracked across neighboring Tuscaloosa County.  This tornado moved in a northwest direction through Tuscaloosa at 5:10 p.m. CDT.  The tornado cut through the University of Alabama campus and wiped out entire neighborhoods in Tuscaloosa.  Debris from the tornado fell across Birmingham, over 20 miles away.  Later the National Weather Service determined the path length of the tornado to be 80.7 miles long, 1.5 miles wide, with winds of 190 mph, making it an EF4.  In Tuscaloosa 44 people were killed, six of them University of Alabama students, and over 1,000 people were injured.  The tornado was part of the largest outbreak of tornadoes ever recorded.

You can see the path of the tornado - the brown swath.
You can see the path of the tornado – the brown swath.

FEMA trailers were brought in.  President Obama visited.  Tuscaloosa was declared a disaster area.  The Red Cross showed up and thousands of people came to help Tuscaloosa rebuild.  Three years later there are fewer volunteers, but people are still living in FEMA trailers or with relatives.  The Tuscaloosa Habitat for Humanity affiliate went from building two houses a year to building 15.  They are still building and have an additional 50 families who are on their waiting list.  We are part of the team building homes on Juanita Drive.

We are here with Care-a-Vanners, a group of (mostly) retired RVers who sign on for two week builds.  There have been Care-a-Vanners in Tuscaloosa almost continually since the tornado.  But there are also lots of other groups who come to help Tuscaloosa rebuild.  This week we are working with over 40 volunteers from 18 different states.  Our group of Care-a-Vanners has people from Texas, Wisconsin, Illinois and Ohio (us!).  A large group of 19 people is here from Frederick, MD.  There is a very large and active Habitat group in Frederick, but the land is so expensive that they can’t afford to build Habitat houses there, so they come to Tuscaloosa.  This is their 18th build in Tuscaloosa since the tornado.  There is a Presbyterian group from eastern PA, some Mennonites, some Episcopalians, a couple of Americorps workers, and two women from California.  

When we arrived on Monday, we got to meet the other teams, and then we divided into three groups.  Two of the groups are working on two homes on Juanita Drive, and the third group is doing various rehab projects around the city.  Tom and I are working at 115 Juanita along with 18 others. When we arrived the house was already framed in so we started right in on the next steps.  Monday Tom and I worked on attaching hurricane ties for the rafters and then we sorted sheets of tin for the roof.  Tuesday I drilled holes in the tin while Tom attached plywood sheeting to the roof and got the tar paper on.  By the end of the day on Tuesday, the exterior OSB was also on.  Yesterday was doors and windows, putting up blue board and taping.  Today Tom was up on the roof attaching the sheets of tin and I puttied the holes in fascia, and window boards.  Tomorrow we will put the hardy board siding on the house.  

Most of the houses on this street are basic Habitat houses, but Habitat has been trying to make each one different.  The homeowner gets to choose the color and some of the trim work and some of the finishes on the porches.  Each house sits on a concrete slab and has three bedrooms.  One of the unique features of these builds is the “safe room” in each house.  Every one of the houses has a steel-encased closet big enough for six people which is bolted to the foundation.

We are working very hard and the weather, so far, has been beautiful:  sunny and warm (close to 90 every day) with a nice breeze.  We have plenty of water on site and people reminding us to take breaks and drink fluids, especially those, like Tom, who are up high in the sun.  We have been working with a wonderful, diverse group of people and everyone has been very willing to pitch in wherever they can.  We are especially enjoying the other Care-a-Vanners.

We will be in Tuscaloosa another week – I wonder how much of our house will be done before we leave.  I’ll be sure to let you know!

The framed house when we arrived
Nailing in the hurricane ties
Have hammer, will travel
Tom is great at hammering
Putting up the OSB
Tom likes to get in the high, hot places
The blue board insulation is on
Painting the hardy board for siding
Our Care-a-Vanner group
One of the finished Habitat houses on Juanita