‘A Monumental Disaster’
Bishop Robert Baker shares firsthand account of destruction in Alabama.
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — When tornadoes ripped through Alabama last Wednesday, the majority of the damage hit the Diocese of Birmingham, which covers most of northern Alabama. Birmingham Bishop Robert Baker spent Friday touring the damage and speaking to those affected by the storms.
He spoke with Register senior writer Tim Drake after completing his tour of the diocese.
What areas did you visit, and who went with you on your tour?
We visited those areas that were hit the hardest — Cullman, Hanceville and Tuscaloosa. I was accompanied by Mary Dillard, the photographer for our diocesan newspaper, One Voice, and by Albert Manzella, the executive director of Catholic Social Services in the diocese.
What did you see?
We saw terrible devastation. It’s a monumental disaster that will take years to recover from. In Hanceville on Wednesday morning, winds between 60 and 120 mph toppled trees all over the place. People weren’t able to get into the monastery because of downed trees. Electric lines were down, and there still is no power in those areas. It’s going to take a long time to get the power up.
Tuscaloosa was hit the worst. The F-5 tornado that hit there was a mile wide and had winds of 200 mph. The devastation and loss of life there was unbelievable. At least 21 families that belonged to Holy Spirit Catholic Church lost their homes, and there is one confirmed death from that parish.
Pratt City, a suburb of Birmingham, was leveled. There were also two separate tornadoes that came together and hit downtown Cullman. Buildings that have been there for a very long time were destroyed. The tornado lifted the roof off a county building. The tornado angled and went through the Sacred Heart Monastery, but didn’t directly hit the chapel there. It knocked trees over onto a c arport and one of the houses used by the sisters. The hospital sustained some damage. Houses northeast of Cullman were severely damaged. The double-steeple Catholic church in Cullman was very fortunate. Flying debris hit the German stained-glass windows, but the outer protective Plexiglas protected them.
How did the Catholic churches in Birmingham fare overall?
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 situation could have been very different if the tornado had headed another way. In Birmingham, if the tornado had come slightly north, it would have hit the cathedral.
Others were not as fortunate. Many non-Catholic churches sustained severe damage, and we want to do what we can to help them out.
In Tuscaloosa, one Catholic family — the Maluff family — lost their business, Full Moon Barbecue. The employees went into the walk-in freezer for protection. The building was totally destroyed, but the employees survived. There’s been serious damage to life and limb. The numbers are growing. Currently, more than 200 people lost their lives in Alabama alone.
What are the needs of those affected by the storms?
Our first concern must be for those who lost their lives. We need to pray for them and be there for their families. Beyond that, the most immediate needs are for basics: bread, water, diapers and baby wipes, baby bottles, formula, canned goods, flashlights and batteries.
How is the Church responding?
We’ve established the Bishop’s Disaster Relief Fund to help with temporary housing and homelessness. Many people have been displaced and are without their homes.
We are people of hope, and hope translates into action. We have Centers of Concern throughout the diocese that will be providing people’s immediate needs.
What were you most struck by?
I was struck by how disasters strike suddenly, and people’s lives are turned around overnight. I have sympathy for those people who weren’t able to get out of harm’s way. Albert Mansella, my own director of Catholic Social Services, was grieving the death of his cousin.
While in Tuscaloosa, we met a man whose wife was killed. He had been thrown out of his home and had some broken ribs. His wife and his dog were killed. Catholic Social Services was helping him. I can’t imagine: first the terror from the storm and then the grief.
In Rainsville, there was a Catholic family whose home was destroyed, and one of the spouse’s set of parents, who lived across the street, were killed.
I’ve also been struck by the kindness and generosity of people. My former vicar general, from the Diocese of Charleston, Msgr. Martin Laughlin, called to tell me that they are sending a truckload of supplies to Tuscaloosa. Archbishop Gregory Aymond from New Orleans called. The papal nuncio also called to express his concern and the condolences of the Holy Father.
Those kinds of things lift your spirits.
Register senior writer Tim Drake writes from St. Joseph, Minnesota.
How to Help
Bishop’s Disaster Relief Fund
Diocese of Birmingham
Office of Bishop Robert J. Baker
P.O. Box 12047
Birmingham, AL 35202-2047