Wednesday, March 07, 2007

A look at all of our sites

Note: this is by a student on the first days of the trip. Enjoy!

March 3, 2007

It's the first day on the Alabama site. Our original plans were to be in Mississippi Saturday afternoon and tour the sites. Sunday we were going to spend in New Orleans. A last minute change, however, has led to us arriving in Enterprise, Alabama today to help with the tornado cleanup. The town was hit with an F3 hurricane Thursday, which killed eight students at the local high school when the roof collapsed in one wing. We dropped our stuff off at the Coffee Bible Vineyard, a retreat sort of place which is going to accommodate us until tomorrow, and arrived on site around 2:40 PM. The National Guard is here, and they give an imposing presence to the area, standing in groups near the school with their guns out. We heard that President Bush was at the school only hours earlier and he spoke with the families of the deceased students.

We walked from the high school (actually, the church next to the school) into the neighborhood where houses and yards had been hit. It seems that the school is off limits, probably because the roof is unstable. The tornado's damage was pretty erratic. Some cars in the parking lot are fine, others have one or two windows blown out, and others are completely totaled. It is the same with houses. The houses on the same street as the school seem to only have minor damage, but as we turned onto Clover Street, we could see houses with trees lying on top of them. Broken branches and fallen trees cover various yards. We could even see some sort of metal object stuck in the uppermost branches of one tree lucky enough to still be standing. Power lines are down all over, but I guess the electricity in this area is shut off, so there are no electrocution worries. We then started to split off into smaller groups to help whatever houses needed it. I went to one house on top of a hill that was right next to a graveyard. Already, the more fortunate neighbors not hit by the twister are helping out by working on roofs and cutting up large branches. We introduced ourselves to the older couple that lived there, explained what who we were, and immediately started moving debris in their yard. The easiest solution for the time being was to move branches, boards and other garbage into piles. It's amazing how much timber and random objects are littered all over the ground. We've found everything from wills, decade-old checks, bills, empty pill bottles and tools scattered over the yard. Numerous tombstones have been knocked over as well. The piles grow fast, and it's heartening to see the progress. Our small group eventually ended up cleaning up three or four different yards along with the cemetery.

People in Enterprise are extremely nice. Upon telling anyone one of them that we are from New York elicits a startled exclamation of surprise. Many of them find it hard to believe that we came all the way down here. A sizeable number also seem to assume we all hail from the Big Apple. Despite the natural disaster they just suffered, they are all quite grateful to see us and offer food and water at any possible opportunity. And their stories are astounding. A husband and wife whose house escaped damage told some of us how it only took about fifteen seconds for the tornado to sweep through and wreck havoc. The husband could see it from the hospital where he was at during the storm, and he described how one half of the sky was bright and sunny, and the other half was dark black. I can't imagine how helpless I'd feel seeing a tornado ripping apart my neighborhood in less than a minute. They told us that the view of the high school we had from the hill was a new one; previously, tall pine trees had completely obscured the horizon. The wife then told us how owners of a puppy daycare had left the dogs outside and sought shelter indoors during the tornado. The dogs were found dead around the elementary school miles away. I hope the grade-schoolers didn't see that; I think I'd be traumatized even now if I saw dead dogs strewn over the ground.

We left the neighborhood as it turned to evening; it's been a long day of work and riding in a bus. I think everyone is looking forward to bed and a hot shower, as well as some dinner. There's also a dawn to dusk curfew in effect, so there's not much else we can do until tomorrow. I'm looking forward to going back to the neighborhood so much that I almost wish we could wait to go to Mississippi; clearing the trees out gives me a sense of accomplishment and the people are so welcoming. They told one person in our group that to see us come walking down the streets in kind of parade of brown Bonaresponds shirts gave them hope. It'll be interesting to see what work we do tomorrow.

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