It’s almost 8 am. I watch through my window as the sun climbs over the Appalachian Mountains, struggling through the clouds on a dreary Alabama morning. Down interstate 65 we go, carried by charter bus, most of us ignorant to what we got ourselves into. The closer we get to Birmingham, the more we realize that it’s real. The landscape seems to suddenly change around us; sights most of us have only seen on TV or in a newspaper. The sight of devastation slowly fills our eyes. Massive trees down, uprooted, most of them split in half, leaning in the direction that the wind was blowing 2 months ago. The day the tornados hit in April. Tall metal street lights twisted in every direction, road signs, gone. My heart ached. Seeing devastation up close and personal is different than seeing it in a picture.
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Then we entered Pratt City. The hardest hit area around Birmingham–forgotten by the damage the EF-5 caused in Tuscaloosa. An unexplainable wave of emotions hit me. Still after all this time, this community looked the same as it did after the tornado reeked it’s havoc two months ago. It was here that I was reminded why I was down here.
Her name was Mary. She lived alone, and was there when the tornado ripped apart her home. What remained of the second floor was the inner bathroom, and the hollow walls of two rooms. The basement, almost untouched. Her insurance wouldn’t cover demolition, and she couldn’t afford to pay for it.
I could tell you many tales of my travels, many stories of exotic lands and curious cultures filled with foreign food and charming people. Yet, I linger on this place much closer to home. While we focus most of our travel destinations outside our home country, we tend to forget what's really inside. Places in states that can capture our imagination, change our views and open our perspective on life within our own country. That’s what Alabama did to me.
The group we were with worked on demolishing her house for a week, while other groups branched off and helped the neighbors in any way that they could. I remember people passing us by on the street, amazed at all the yellow shirts hard at work, as one team, determined to finish the job. They would come up to the site and tell us memorial stories about their experience or simply just thank us for our work.
“It’s not every day that I see Angels at work.” One stranger said to me as I was throwing debris away.
As the day intensifies in heat, the thermometer hitting well above 100 our dirt covered bodies retire back to the bus to take us to the nearby park for showers and then to the Baptist church for dinner and a much needed rest. Another day completed, and a difference made.
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