Damage from the tornado that struck Tuscaloosa, AL, on April 27. (Source: WSFA)
Cass Curtis survived the April 27 tornado that tore through Tuscaloosa, AL. Feeling a need to help his less fortunate neighbors, he teamed with his hometown to provide aid to the area. (Source: Cass Curtis)
Tuesday, May 21 2013 11:02 PM EDT2013-05-22 03:02:49 GMT
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Thursday, April 12 2012 4:09 PM EDT2012-04-12 20:09:27 GMT
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TUSCALOOSA, AL (RNN) – It had taken his home, his possessions and nearly taken his life. He knew how lucky he was.
The teeth of an EF4 tornado ripped into the community one year ago. Winds reaching nearly 200 mph displaced the possessions of people there and claimed 53 of their lives.
After surviving the storm, Cass Curtis went home to Sylacauga, a town of about 13,000 east of Birmingham. It somehow came away unscathed from the tornados that crossed the state that day.
There, he teamed up with a service organization, city officials and concerned residents to come up with an action plan.
"It had to be towns like Sylacauga that weren't affected to help rebuild," he said. "I felt that there were so many people that didn't live through it and God left me for a reason. So the least I could do was help.
"There were so many people with urgent needs, right then. That's how we got involved in the Tuscaloosa area."
'We lost everything'
Curtis had a couple of weeks left in his freshman year at the University of Alabama. On April 27, 2011, he got ready for the day like it was any other at his home on 14th Street.
Threats of severe weather are so common in Alabama springs. They become almost ordinary.
"I was going to eat with some friends," Curtis said. "I came into the den and my roommate said, ‘The weather is getting bad; we should probably get in the bathroom or something.' I live with two football players. The thought of being in a small bathroom with two 300-pound players … I said, ‘I'll just sit here, and when it looks bad I'll run into the bathroom."
One of his roommate's parents called and told them to get underneath the house immediately, but it still seemed unreal. Finally, after a local meteorologist announced it was the worst storm he had ever seen, they went into the crawl space.
"Everything was fine and then all of a sudden the wind picked up," he said. "I went to the crawl space door to look out, and I saw the tornado."
With the EF4 coming toward them, they clung to the brick pillars underneath the house. They heard trees fall and the winds overtake their house.
"Then the crawl space door got sucked out," Curtis said. "When that happened it was like a vacuum. I was crouched down, and when it sucked the door out, it sucked my legs out from under me.
"My roommate held on to me."
When they came out from under the house, they saw their first glimpse of the demolition, but their house appeared intact.
"I look and 30 or 40 yards away I see one of my dress shoes hanging on a tree that had broken off," he said. "I keep going around the house, and it was just the back of it that was still standing. We lost everything."
Thousands of victims served
Through the Sylacauga Alliance for Family Enhancement, or SAFE, Curtis and his hometown reached out to Tuscaloosa's One Place. Both organizations work to strengthen families through education, job placement and other outreach efforts.
After the tornado, they began providing the most basic services to people who lost everything in some of the low-income areas around Tuscaloosa, like Alberta City and Holt.
"Many of the families affected were our clients to begin with," said Teresa Costanzo, director of One Place. "We actually began by cooking. We opened up an informal distribution site here and began doing both food [and supplies]. People just started bringing things to us. I would say during the next month we served more than 7,000 people."
She said the donations of food, toiletries, baby items, cleaning supplies and other items came from across the country. She said volunteers from the university and those who volunteered in the past began to pitch in.
"Many families had no transportation, so we were allowed to go into the communities and distributed the material at their homes," Costanzo said. "That proved to be very effective."
Also, One Place gave kids somewhere to go after Holt Elementary was damaged. They teamed with the University of Alabama Honors College to provide a safe place.
People from Sylacauga organized quickly, forming a committee in the days after the storm, including Mayor Sam Wright, SAFE director Margaret Morton, church leaders and Curtis. They held a public forum to brainstorm with the community and let people know how they could help.
They started coming twice a week with donations and to serve food, deliver items to people or do anything else that was needed. Costanzo described them as "a wonderful partner."
From the start, Morton noted it would require long-term efforts to help the victims.
After weeks of visits, Sylacauga volunteers co-hosted a family get-together in the affected area, to offer a day of fun after so much hardship. Once the availability of basic needs improved, they started planning benefits to raise money for building homes.
They have two music events scheduled; the first set to commemorate the one-year anniversary. Morton said the "Tornaide" prayer vigil and concert would be held April 28 at the local high school, with contemporary Christian band Big Daddy Weave performing.
The next is set for June 2. The groups Diamond Rio and Otis Day and the Knights have been scheduled for "Sylabration."
"We made that connection [with One Place] and out of it grew the desire to raise some real dollars for those individual who really fell through the cracks," Morton said. "They have exhausted whatever they were eligible for but they still need help and assistance."
'It is still bad'
Curtis has returned to Tuscaloosa, continuing his studies and his life. And he sees improvements and rebuilding being done in the area on a daily basis.
For many residents, life has become relatively normal again. Roads and schools are open, classes are in session and power has been restored.
But one drive down McFarland Boulevard in Alberta City shows how much there is left to do.
"I pass it every day so I'm accustomed to it now," Curtis said. "For someone who hasn't been, they would probably still be devastated. It is still bad … There are still organizations where people can help, and it still needs it."
Copyright 2012 Raycom News Network. All rights reserved.
Monday, April 30 2012 12:17 AM EDT2012-04-30 04:17:45 GMT
Most of the homes along Highway 20 in Hillsboro that were destroyed by those deadly tornadoes have been rebuilt, but there's still a long road to recovery. Lawrence Davis Jr. didn't imagine April 27th,Full Story >
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Sunday, April 29 2012 12:24 AM EDT2012-04-29 04:24:01 GMT
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Thursday, April 26 2012 5:30 PM EDT2012-04-26 21:30:15 GMT
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Tuesday, May 21 2013 10:36 AM EDT2013-05-21 14:36:49 GMT
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Tuesday, May 21 2013 9:44 AM EDT2013-05-21 13:44:48 GMT
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Monday, May 20 2013 5:35 PM EDT2013-05-20 21:35:49 GMT
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