Alabama Disaster

Bishop Robert Baker of Birmingham, Ala., talks about what he found when he toured areas hit by late April tornadoes.

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — When tornadoes ripped through Alabama April 27, the majority of the damage hit the Diocese of Birmingham, which covers most of northern Alabama. Birmingham Bishop Robert Baker toured the damage and spoke to those affected by the storms.

What did you see when you went to tour the areas hit by the storms?

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 [the Shrine of the Blessed Sacrament, founded by Mother Angelica] because of downed trees. Electric lines were down. ... 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 carport 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.

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 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. While in Tuscaloosa, we met a man [who] 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.

Tim Drake writes from St. Joseph, Minnesota.

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