One year later: Rebuilding normal in Tuscaloosa and Joplin

Last year at this time, I came home to find an urgent message on the phone from my manager. “Can you be on a plane at 7 a.m. tomorrow morning?”

I could, and I was -- heading to Joplin, Missouri, after a catastrophic tornado ripped through the town in the late afternoon of May 22, 2011.

During my first day on the ground there, a Joplin resident asked me whether I’d ever seen anything like it. Sadly, I had to answer yes. It was the second time in just over a month that I’d covered the aftermath of a deadly tornado.

In April 2011, I'd gone to Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Several people described the devastation as looking like a giant vacuum cleaner had sucked up part of the town.

In eastern Alabama, I met a family coping with the extremes of emotion. On April 25, Rebecca Acrey and her husband, Tim, found out they were pregnant with their second child. On April 27, a tornado destroyed their mobile home.

Audrey Acrey likes to help her parents, Tim and Rebecca, as they work on building their home.

Audrey Acrey likes to help her parents, Tim and Rebecca, as they work on building their home. (Photo: Laura Reinhardt/World Vision)

The Acreys were uninsured. But thankfully, they weren’t alone. They reached out to United Way, who, in turn, reached out to World Vision.

World Vision provided items such as concrete siding, roof shingles, bathtubs, and sinks to help tornado survivors rebuild their lives.

Susan Carter of United Way in Etowah County, Alabama, says donations from organizations like World Vision enable those affected by disaster to stretch their money as far as they can.

The Acreys looked at replacing their mobile home, but realized that they didn’t really want to put the family back in that kind of precarious situation. Plus, with another child on the way, they needed a place with more room.

They took their FEMA grant money of $30,000 and bought basic supplies to begin building a house. Rebecca figures that their new home will cost about $50,000 to complete. Donations from organizations like World Vision help to bridge that gap.

Susan says that while the Acreys used their FEMA money very wisely, there was no way they could afford all the materials to build a new house.

“I think that the biggest thing with the donations is enabling those families whose lives were devastated, to give them hope that people out there care,” says Becky Ellis, who also works for United Way in Etowah County.

“They care, not only en masse, but they care for me. They are helping me with my siding or my insulation, or my faucets -- the things that a lot of people take for granted. I think that at such a vulnerable time for people, they have that sense that ‘people really care about me.’”

In Joplin, I also saw evidence of how much caring can mean to people whose lives have been turned upside down.

World Vision partnered with a local church, Grace Baptist Church, to provide backpacks to children in need in Joplin. Each year, the church has hosted a backpack distribution -- but last year, the factory that donated the backpacks was damaged by the tornado.

World Vision and Grace Baptist church partnered to bring backpacks full of school supplies to students after tornadoes hit Joplin, Missouri, on May 22, 2011.

World Vision and Grace Baptist church partnered to bring backpacks full of school supplies to students after tornadoes hit Joplin, Missouri, on May 22, 2011. (Photo: Laura Reinhardt/World Vision)

World Vision stepped in to fill the gap. “Thank God World Vision came along and said, ‘OK, let’s partner together and be able to give backpacks to kids,’” says Muchengetwa Bgoni, the youth pastor at Grace Baptist Church.

“This kind of generosity means everything to our students. Many of the children don’t have materials, supplies, support,” says Elaina Edman, principal at Cecil Floyd Elementary.It gives you the foundational hope that we need to keep us sustained and ongoing, growing, building.”

For mom Collisha Rauch, the simple backpack moved her to tears. She picked up three for her children, including 6-year-old Alli, who came with her.

“We’re just overwhelmed with generosity,” says Collisha. “We were out of jobs temporarily. My husband had lost his job right before the tornado hit. So he’s finding a part-time job. We have three children and we can spend a couple hundred [dollars] in school supplies just for the bare basics. I’m just so grateful, because that means I can put that toward electricity or toward a house payment.

“It may seem like a little thing to some people, but whenever you’re 6 and everything else in your life has been turned upside down, it’s just a real blessing to have something to look forward to, something normal,” adds Collisha.

Being on the ground immediately after these disasters and seeing the devastation firsthand helped me to understand what a difference it makes to families who have lost so much to know that they’re not alone.

It’s a privilege to be part of an organization that helps people reach out to survivors of disasters and let them know: “We’re thinking of you. We’re here to help.”


Read more coverage on the World Vision Blog of destructive tornadoes that have hit parts of the central and southern United States in the past year, including Missouri and Alabama.

Make a one-time donation to our U.S. Disaster Response Fund. Your gift will help us respond quickly and effectively with life-saving assistance in the aftermath of emergencies right here in the United States, like last year's tornadoes in Missouri, Alabama, and elsewhere.

Read more on the World Vision Blog about: U.S. Programs U.S. South tornadoes

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