Students Lend a Hand with Tornado Recovery in Alabama

  • Members of Franklin & Marshall's Catastrophic Relief Alliance (CRA) take a break from their work in Greensboro, Ala., in early January. The group helped a local resident rebuild his home after a devastating tornado destroyed the original structure last April.  

The final statistics of last April’s four-day tornado outbreak in the southeast U.S. are staggering: 359 confirmed tornadoes, including four EF-5s, the most violent kind; 346 people killed; and total damages of more than $11 billion. But as members of Franklin & Marshall’s Catastrophic Relief Alliance (CRA) know, the personal stories behind the statistics can be just as powerful.

While the massive twister that leveled parts of Tuscaloosa, Ala., on April 27 received much of the media’s attention, many other strong tornadoes carved deep scars through smaller communities that day. In the middle of one of those scars was the house of Kervin Jones, a pastor in Greensboro, Ala., 30 miles south of Tuscaloosa. Jones’ house—and everything in it—was swept off the map.

On Jan. 4, 19 members of the CRA traveled to Alabama to help Jones rebuild from the devastation. By the time the group left on Jan. 12, Jones was preparing to move into his new home. The trip was the CRA’s ninth relief excursion since 2006, and first to a tornado-stricken community.

“The devastation was different than what we’ve seen in hurricane-relief efforts,” said Andy Gulati, systems librarian, associate librarian and adviser to the CRA. “You could look down a valley and see the tornado’s exact path. Kervin’s house was smack in the middle of that path. The house had basically been vaporized, and trees were snapped everywhere for a quarter mile.”

The CRA connected with Jones through Hale Empowerment & Revitalization Organization (HERO), a nonprofit housing resource center in Alabama. At the worksite, the group worked on sheeting and shingling, framing and insulation, and installed windows and doors.

“It looked like a construction site when we got there, and like a home when we finished on our last day,” said Sam Stone ’13, a government major. “It was hard to leave because we had done so much…On our last night, Kervin said, ‘I’m moving in tonight!’ That really touched me because I could tell how excited he was to move into his new home.”

The students enjoyed getting to know Jones, who stayed at a local church youth center while his house was under construction. The pastor invited the group to have dinner with him on two occasions, which several students called the most memorable moments of their trip. “His gratitude warmed our hearts, and his stories, such as encounters he had with the Ku Klux Klan and local problems of corruption, had us hanging on his every word,” said Dan Fox ’13, a psychology major and economics minor. “That night made me hope we are fortunate enough to return to Greensboro.”

Stone will also remember the dinner with Jones. “[Jones] was thankful because this disaster allowed him to empathize with people who had suffered similarly tragic events,” Stone said. “He appreciated the power of the tornado because it allowed him to meet us, a group of passionate students from a school he had never heard of, in a city he had never heard of, who have a propensity to help others.”

The students also experienced the excitement in Alabama during college football’s BCS championship game, in which the University of Alabama defeated LSU for the national title.

“We drove to Tuscaloosa for the game and watched the fans go wild in the streets,” said Elena Lopez ’12, who majors in environmental studies and anthropology. “However, what will most stick with me forever was the eternal greatness of those we worked with and worked for during our stay in Alabama.”

- Chris Karlesky

  • F&M students are hard at work on the reconstruction project during a sunny day in Alabama over winter break. More photos from the trip are available at the CRA's Flickr gallery

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