When disaster strikes home

Editor's note: World Vision's Nathan Looney reports from his hometown of Birmingham, Alabama, that while neighborhoods in his immediate area were spared, towns just 30 minutes north and south have been completely devastated. Nathan, who happened to be visiting his family for the Easter holiday, will connect with our incoming assessment team tomorrow as they jumpstart World Vision's response.

I’ve seen countless pictures of destruction and hundreds of video clips of unimaginable devastation. In my few years at World Vision, I’ve sat in meetings sifting through images and articles, looking for the ones that best tell the story.

At times, those pictures and stories ended up just being a tool to me, a means to educate our donors, a device to appeal for donations. Their utility masked the unique personal story that existed beyond the letters, pixels, and paragraphs.

Residents inspect the aftermath of overnight tornadoes that left this suburb of Birmingham, Alabama, in ruins April 28, 2011. Photo: REUTERS/Marvin Gentry

Two days ago, my perspective changed. That’s what happens when the “before” in a stack of before-and-after photos isn’t just an image, but a place you’ve been, a place frequented by the people you love.

I had traveled home to Alabama to visit my family for Easter. On Wednesday morning, the sound of tornado sirens woke me. For the remainder of the day, the television stations pre-empted their regular programming to talk about the storm, and the even deadlier storms that could be coming that night.

It’s common in the South for the broadcast outlets to cut into programming during severe weather outbreaks, but this was the first time I had ever seen them interrupt their schedule to warn of an upcoming outbreak. The tone of the meteorologist was ominous, almost pleading.

As evening approached, so did the storms -- tornado after tornado, many of them caught by news tower cameras and traffic cameras. They were like cyclones you see barreling across a Kansas plain in a movie, except these were placed against the backdrop of a city skyline -- my city’s skyline.

Trees were being uprooted, cars overturned, and buildings leveled. Debris was carried 80 miles or more before finally falling back to the ground. Everyone you spoke to knew someone directly impacted by the storm. Over 200 people lost their lives in the state of Alabama alone that evening.

A survivor wipes her eyes as she recalls her experiences in the aftermath of deadly tornados in Tuscaloosa, Alabama April 29, 2011. Photo: REUTERS/Lee Celano

The day after the storm, the news showed non-stop photos of the devastation.  Places of business, of refuge, and of worship; all reduced to three-foot piles of twisted metal and wood. But in the midst of the non-stop barrage of images of littered streets, another type of story was also being told -- a story of hope, help and generosity.

It never ceases to amaze me how when things are at their worst, people rise to their best -- neighbors helping neighbors, strangers helping the stranded. The hurt in the hearts of those affected by this tragedy was matched by the empathy in the eyes of those already helping.

Unfortunately, we all see images of tragedy too often. I sometimes fear we lose sight of the extreme personal toll they take on those affected. We focus our attention on the “really big ones,” sometimes forgetting that to those who’re impacted, a tragedy of any size is a “really big one.”

To the family whose small business was flattened -- this is their “Chile.” To the 3-year-old boy oblivious to the fact that the front of his house is gone, but sobbing because he’ll never be able to hold his favorite stuffed toy again -- this is his “Japan.” And to the young father filled with relief that his newborn girl survived the storm, but ripped to his very core that the love of his life did not -- this is his “Haiti.”

Family members haul relative's belongings across debris in aftermath of deadly tornados in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Photo: REUTERS/Lee Celano

From a country leveled by a massive quake, to a girl having to walk three miles just to get clean water, to a family wondering where they will stay now that a tornado has blown away everything they own, tragedies take any number of forms. But for every natural disaster, for every malnourished child, for every son and daughter orphaned by AIDS, there are people like you -- people motivated by their compassion and concern for others to lend a hand.

You offer your time, your financial resources, and your prayers. In doing so, you’re not simply building a house or just funding a well; you’re not only equipping a school. Through your kindness, you’re re-writing someone's life story. And in the immediate aftermath of a tragedy like the one that just struck my hometown, sometimes a story is all the survivor has left.

World Vision is appealing for $3 million to assist tornado survivors in an extensive, multi-state response effort. We expect the greatest immediate needs to include basic hygiene items, blankets, bedding, water, first aid kits, and flashlights. World Vision also plans to address the long-term recovery needs of affected families, with a specific focus on the needs of children.

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    I am a Christian woman born and raised in Birmingham now in Texas. Thankfully all my family has survived and are doing well but the more I see and hear my heart continues to break...I want to help and will be coming to the area later this week...I would love to find out how to connect with World Vision in Birmingham so I may volunteer??!! My husband and I have no children except for our orphan we sponser through World Vision...yall have been such a Blessing to us and we want to give back in any way we can!!! Even if it is to come see my family and work with World Vision extending as many hugs of hope as I can give!! I look forward to hearing back in this matter.
    Thank you and God BLESS!!! <

    Ashley, We should have more information about possible volunteer needs early next week. We will update our Facebook page (http://www.facebook.com/worldvision) when that information becomes available. Thanks for your amazing support. Blessings to your family and thank God they are all doing well!

    We don't have a lot of money to send, but we have become "empty nester's" this past year, and we have some extra bedrooms. We could house a couple, or a small family, if they wouldn't mind being in Michigan for a time to recover and regroup. Our hearts go out to each person affected by this devastation, and we will be intercessors for them.

    Preparedness, not panic or fear, are the operative words.

    People need to prepare for the financial and insurance-related impacts of calamitous events including fires, hurricanes, explosions, earthquakes, floods, thefts, and other unpredictable emergencies.

    What If You Lost it All? Here’s a link to a DocuHome home inventory and it’s free...

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