TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Diners were just beginning to arrive at Tuscaloosa’s Full Moon Bar-B-Que, when the restaurant’s manager, who had been keeping an eye on the path of the oncoming storms, hastily gathered four patrons and seven employees into the walk-in cooler. The 12 people huddled and prayed in a 3 x 10-foot area surrounded by shelves holding fruits and vegetables. At 5pm, the destructive force of a tornado blew the walls out of the restaurant, collapsing the roof on top of the debris. Three of the 12 people sustained broken bones and concussions, but all of them survived.
“They were protected by the hand of God,” said David Maluff, the Catholic co-owner with his brother Joe of the Southern chain of eight restaurants. “They’re very fortunate to be alive.”
Nothing remains of the restaurant but debris. The tornado took all of the restaurant’s equipment and threw one of the restaurant’s vans 1,000 feet. Yet, through makeshift kitchens, Maluff continues to feed people — volunteers and those displaced by the storms that ravaged the South April 27.
“You reach your hand out when people are down,” said Maluff.
As rescue work has shifted to recovery, the question on everyone’s minds is: “How can I help?”
The death toll has climbed to 349, making it the second-deadliest storm outbreak in U.S. history. Alabama bore the brunt of the destruction, with at least 255 deaths and at least 1,700 injuries. Thirty-five deaths were reported in Mississippi, 34 in Tennessee, 15 in Georgia, eight in Virginia, and one each in Arkansas and Kentucky. The storms followed those that hit Alabama, Arkansas, Missouri, Oklahoma, North Carolina and Virginia during Holy Week, killing at least 63. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said that 288 tornadoes had struck the South in a three-day period.
Hit hardest were the Alabama cities of Pratt City, a Birmingham suburb, Tuscaloosa and Cullman. So was Smithville, Miss. Two tornadoes killed 29 people, destroyed 100 homes, three schools, the police and fire stations, and a Wrangler clothing factory in Hackleburg, Ala.
“This is tornado alley, but longtime residents say that this is unprecedented,” said Diocese of Birmingham Bishop Robert Baker, who toured Cullman, Hanceville and Tuscaloosa two days after the storm. “It’s a monumental disaster that will take years to recover from.”
“The devastation is astounding,” said Mary Dillard, a photographer with the Diocese of Birmingham’s One Voice newspaper. She accompanied Bishop Baker on a tour of the diocese following the storms. “I don’t think any photo could do justice to the firsthand experience. I truly had never witnessed anything like the destruction in Tuscaloosa.”
Dillard’s photos showed cars tossed on top of houses, concrete power poles snapped like twigs, and neighborhoods once filled with homes now simply piles of debris.
But the image that most struck her was a close-up she took of a muddied church hymnal sitting atop a pile of debris.
The hymnal lay open with the words “And we’ll sing glory; we’ll shout when we’re caught up to meet him in the air” clearly displayed.
“The hymnal was sitting outside a wall of a house that had a car on top of it,” said Dillard. “It seemed the best commentary on the event and showed where our minds should be.”
Catholic Church Fortunate
After his assessment of church properties, Bishop Baker said, “As far as we know, the Catholic Church was very fortunate. Church buildings were miraculously saved. Only the front portico of one of our mission churches, St. Henry’s, sustained any significant damage. The tornado in Tuscaloosa passed between Holy Spirit Catholic Church and St. Francis Catholic Church at the University of Alabama.”
The bishop said that more than 20 families who belong to Holy Spirit lost their homes. The parish also had one fatality among its parishioners.
Neither the Eternal Word Television Network, in Irondale, Ala., nor the Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament — home to Mother Angelica and the women’s religious order she founded — in Hanceville sustained any significant structural damage. Immediately after the storm, downed trees prevented entrance onto the shrine grounds in Hanceville. The power in parts of Hanceville has been out since the storm. As of May 2, power at the shrine was still being provided by back-up generators. At one point, more than 1 million people in the state were without power.
“Miraculously, EWTN’s facilities and operations sustained no damage or interruptions as a result of the tornadoes,” said Michael Warsaw, president and CEO of EWTN. “So far, we have no indications of fatalities or injuries to our staff or their families. This has been a devastating event for the state of Alabama. We hope that our EWTN family and friends around the world will join us in praying for those who have been killed, injured or otherwise affected by the storms.”
The Church and social service agencies are doing all they can to provide the assistance that people need. The Red Cross has opened 16 shelters across the states. Catholic churches have been providing shelter as well. St. Therese Church in Cleveland, Ga., opened its gymnasium to families who had lost their homes.
Bishop Baker created the Bishop’s Disaster Relief Fund to help those displaced and homeless because of the storms.
“We have 10 Catholic Centers of Concern,” explained Bishop Baker. “They’ll communicate what the needs are, and we’ll work with other agencies to provide assistance.”
“Our first concern must be for those who lost their lives. We need to pray for them and be there for their families,” said Bishop Baker. “Beyond that, the most immediate needs are for basics: bread, water, diapers and baby wipes, baby bottles, formula, canned goods, flashlights and batteries.”
In addition to the loss of lives and homes, the widespread destruction has many other repercussions.
“We heard reports … that in one area, there were three large employers whose plants were completely destroyed,” Kim Burgo, director of disaster operations for Catholic Charities, told the Catholic News Agency. “So now there’s about a thousand people out of work.”
Recognizing that those who have already lost so much shouldn’t also lose their salaries, restaurant owner Maluff plans to keep his employees on the payroll.
“We want to continue paying our employees until the restaurant can be rebuilt,” said Maluff. “We plan to rebuild bigger and better and stronger.”
Register senior writer Tim Drake writes from St. Joseph, Minnesota.