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Storm troopers

Citizens and churches mobilize to help victims of historic tornado assault on the U.S. Southeast

Issue: "After Osama," May 21, 2011

The morning after the Southeast endured more tornadoes in a single day than in any other 24-hour period in U.S. history, Georgia state Sen. Barry Loudermilk encountered a curious problem: The Republican representing a hard-hit district in northeastern Georgia had trouble finding folks to help.

It wasn't because neighbors weren't needy: Parts of the torrent of at least 312 tornadoes that swept through seven states and killed more than 340 people on April 27 demolished whole neighborhoods less than five miles from Loudermilk's undamaged home. But when the senator surveyed the area, he found neighbors had already descended on damaged homes, helping stricken residents.

"Shortly after daybreak, chainsaws were running all over the place, and construction crews had brought their bobcats to help people," said Loudermilk. By noon, local churches were serving sandwiches and cooking meals for victims and volunteers. The Republican senator-who eventually helped clear debris and fallen trees from streets and homes-said the immediate outpouring in the rural towns was moving: "I was blessed."

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Less than a week after the record number of twisters destroyed entire towns and left thousands homeless, much-needed blessings punctuated overwhelming loss: Volunteers from churches, Christian organizations, aid groups, and nearby colleges flooded the disaster zones with supplies and help. One example: Southern Baptist Disaster Relief-a fixture in crippled Southern communities after Hurricane Katrina-mobilized 50 relief teams and delivered 33,000 hot meals within the first week.

The bulk of aid groups' efforts focused on Alabama: The hardest-hit state reported at least 250 dead, hundreds missing, and thousands more homeless. After touring Tuscaloosa, President Barack Obama said: "I've never seen devastation like this."

The deepest grief came from lost lives: Even as Alabama authorities began a grim search for perhaps hundreds of dead bodies, bereaved family members planned funerals and remembered loved ones. Sorrowful stories abounded: The Vision Forum reported that a tornado killed ministry friend Tom Lee, an Alabama husband and father of 13 children. His last acts of fatherhood: praying for his family and shielding his children.

The devastation stretched through parts of Mississippi, Tennessee, Georgia, Virginia, Louisiana, and Kentucky. While larger towns became hubs for relief, smaller communities grappled with their own crushing losses: In the northwestern Alabama town of Hackleburg-population 1,500-a tornado destroyed 75 percent of the town's structures, including homes, the police department, the fire department, the only grocery store, and a Wrangler jeans factory that employed 10 percent of the town's residents. That's a particularly severe blow in a county with a 13 percent unemployment rate.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)-seeking to avoid a repeat of its highly criticized response to Hurricane Katrina-quickly established 11 disaster recovery centers in Alabama and approved more than $13 million for temporary housing and home repairs.

Back in Georgia, Loudermilk said FEMA agents were speaking with residents about possible financial assistance. But the senator said that neighbors and churches were meeting the most immediate needs. Two days after the storm, Loudermilk joined a group of homeschooling families to clear debris from the home of an older single woman nearby.

The resident was out of town when the tornado hit. By the time she returned home, neighbors had begun clearing trees and wrapping valuables inside her home to protect them from a coming rainstorm. Loudermilk said two church groups arrived while they were working to offer lunch. "It's just amazing to see that people aren't depending on the government," he said. "The churches are responding the way that churches should."

Jamie Dean
Jamie Dean

Jamie lives and works in North Carolina, where she covers the national political beat and other topics as news editor for WORLD. Follow Jamie on Twitter @deanworldmag.

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