Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Damaged, But Not Destroyed

Steve Osunsami from ABC News started his tornado report in Cullman to Diane Sawyer showing a photo of my home church, First United Methodist. It also shows other devastated churches downtown:


Osunsami makes the statement in this video that “there would be no services” at our destroyed churches on Sunday.

 I sat in one of the undamaged parts of First United Methodist Church in Cullman on Sunday morning, amongst a few hundred other church members, as Pastor Mitchell exclaimed 
‘Boy, were THEY wrong!!’

A riveting standing ovation followed, accompanied by tears of joy from those that had lost so much.

This, I thought, is what a community is all about. 
Ever since the tornado swept through Cullman and the state of Alabama, I haven’t been able to eat much, sleep much, or stay focused on much other than the news and social media outlets, anxiously waiting for updates or pictures. My mom was without power, and it wasn’t due back on for at least an entire week. She was going to rough it out (like ‘a Pioneer Woman’ as my Uncle Dan said). My friends’ homes were in the middle of the path of destruction. Every picture and video I saw got worse as the hours progressed.

That was it-- I had to go there. To help my mom, to help my friends, to volunteer. Just to help.

Prateek and I left Tampa around 8:00 on Friday evening, with a truckload full of supplies. We looked like a mini-FEMA truck, packing up 4 generators, a propane gas grill, a mini fridge, non-perishable foods, 18 gallons of gasoline, propane, small grill, 2 bags of charcoal, a cooler full of ice, 10 gallons of drinking water, roofing nails, three huge tarps, and chainsaws and work gloves, and began the 650-mile journey to Cullman.

I didn’t close my eyes more than 30 minutes the entire drive up. There was way too much racing through my mind to sleep. As we got closer, the sun was rising. Just north of Birmingham on I-65, the signs of destruction began…. huge uprooted trees, and tall steel light posts bent in half like spaghetti noodles. The pit in my stomach moved to my throat, and as we took exit 310 for my Mom’s house my heart raced. I was home, and scared to death of what I was going to see that day.

We immediately set my mom up for success. We plugged the coffee maker into the generator (hey, priorities!) and headed downtown to volunteer.

We went down to the one of the worst hit areas, 3rd St NE.  We got right to work, chopping trees and hauling debris, while playing hopscotch with downed electrical wires. The National Guard walked up and down the streets,, making sure we were all safe, while the disaster relief teams and other volunteers walked by asking if we needed any supplies, an additional hand in clean up, or food.

The sound of chainsaws rang in our ears. The smell of gasoline drifted through the air. The place I called home was partially unrecognizable. But somehow, through everything, spirits were high and there was a sense of hope in everyone’s voice.

In typical southern style, in hard times of trial and despair, there was food being given to people in need by the truckloads – literally, 18-wheeler truckloads. It was thawing out of the freezers at local schools and restaurants, and had to be moved out. I remember when my dad passed away, we had more Tupperware and casserole dishes left over at my house than we could count on my entire family’s fingers and toes. We were so grateful then, and were just as grateful on this day.

Word was getting out where to find supplies from other volunteers in the area – most of the churches had some sort of food being cooked on huge grills in their parking lots. The civic center and high school were command posts for donations, supplies, and volunteers, and they even had a ‘charging’ station at the old train depot where people could charge their cell phones and make contact with the outside world.

Cullman may have been hit, but it wasn’t going down without a knock-down drag-out fight!

I typically don’t want to get too political or religious in any of my blog posts, but the southern woman in me can’t help but share this passage from the service on Sunday:

“We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; damaged, but not destroyed”.
2 Corinthians 8-9

Cullman may be damaged, but the community is not destroyed – if anything, it is stronger than ever before. 

Starting the rebuilding process

To quote The Cullman Times: "Not even an EF4 tornado can slow down a Sunday morning in Cullman County!"

As I sat in the church building on Sunday morning, with no electricity, singing acapella to the old hymn It Is Well With My Soul, that same lump came up in my throat – but not because of anxiety, or because I was frightened – but because I was so overtaken by the perseverance of faith, love, and hope in my community that together, we will make it through this. 


  1. We sang that song in church too! I think it's awesome how you came up to help this weekend. It's so terrible to see all the destruction, but the way the town is coming together warms my soul.

  2. Ashley StallingsMay 5, 2011 at 3:16 AM

    Miss Mary - Your smile, helping hands, and uplifting spirit along with the ever entertaining Prateek made working through the destruction at my parent's house much easier. Your willingness to gather supplies and drive through the night to help my family is a kind gesture that will never be forgotten - you are a blessing. Your generosity is immeasurable and I am truly grateful for your helping hands (and Prateek's).
    Words cannot express my thanks.
    Stay safe through your marathon of life and know I am indebted and willing to return the generosity, God forbid, the need arise.
    With love and hugs, Ashley