Third in a series about "Day of Service" events
ELMORE COUNTY, Ala. — Less than four days after a tornado ripped through the area and after a short 7 a.m. sacrament meeting on the back porch of a member's home, 28 men from the Montgomery Alabama Stake reported for duty at the nearby Elmore County Emergency Management's temporary headquarters in Eclectic, Ala., on May 1. At the headquarters, they were joined by 12 more stake members plus 10 men from three other local Christian churches, swelling their number to 50.
The 50 men performed volunteer tornado cleanup work for most of the day.
The tornado mercilessly cut a wide swath late in the day on April 27. More than 230 Alabamians lost their lives to killer tornadoes. This picturesque area of Elmore County along the shoreline of Lake Martin was home to six of those victims.
On the west side of the lake, the tornado hit a 26-building, special needs children's facility that was fortuitously empty of inhabitants when the tornado passed through. Children's Harbor was scheduled to begin serving 300 children the very next day. Only one caretaker couple was on site, and they survived.
Bard's Point on the east side of the lake received the full frontal attack of the tornado, and a home inhabited by two sisters disappeared in seconds.
"New friendships were created and prior friendships were strengthened," said Danny Carpenter, an LDS volunteer whose own place suffered considerable damage.
One team of volunteers under the leadership of Wetumpka Ward mission leader Patrick Pinkston applied tarps to several damaged but still-standing houses that were on the fringes of the tornado's direct pathway.
A second team under the leadership of the removed trees from the roofs and yards. Randy Berkstresser, Wetumpka Ward gospel principles teacher, owns a boom truck that he donated to the day's effort.
A third team cut a roadway through fallen trees so that vehicles would be able to reach demolished homes on the edge of the lake.
"After cutting the road, we removed trees at the home site where the two sisters were killed so that family members could try and find family valuables and mementos," said volunteer Josh Cook. "Only a concrete foundation provides evidence that it was ever a home site. This work can break your heart. When you ponder what took place, it can move you to tears."
Their labors were deeply appreciated by the recipients.
"Once we removed the fallen tree cover, the surviving family members were able to find some jewelry, photos and clothing," said Troy Stubbs, one of the LDS volunteers. "I suppose our work was merely 'sentimental work' in a sense, but for the victims, it was an important work and we were honored to do it. They thanked us profusely several times."
Many of the volunteers had participated in hurricane cleanup over the past two decades in Florida, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana. They had worked in the aftermath of Hurricanes Ivan, Katrina and Gustav, but they had not seen the astonishing things that they saw this day.
"The wind forces inside of a tornado are much greater than those in a hurricane," said Jimmy Rushing, a member of the Baptist Church who joined the chainsaw effort. "I took a photo of the limb of a pine tree that was thrust completely through the center of a three feet diameter oak tree, splitting the massive trunk of the oak tree in half. Seeing the devastation motivated all of us to want to build a below-ground storm shelter at our homes."
Jeromy Owings, who is a Protestant, also participated as a volunteer. He works in the residential construction business and added, "The particular room of the house in which you may choose to seclude yourself during a tornado will not matter if the house takes a direct hit because the entire house will disintegrate and be gathered into the dark funneling mass of high velocity air."
In the early afternoon, as the interfaith work crew continued their labors, the family members departed so that they could prepare for attending the viewing set for the two deceased sisters.
Walt Lynch, one of the volunteers from a local Christian church, was friends with the son of one of the sisters killed in the home. His wife Vanessa attended the viewing for the two sisters and later penned a tender email to one of the volunteers.
"I want to share with you and the other men who served your time today what a blessing it was to the Woodall family. Bebeck and Alice, the Woodall sisters who lived and died together in the home you worked on were the mother and aunt of a dear friend of ours here in Wetumpka. Tonight, David, who lost his mother, pulled me aside at the viewing and told me that as much as he grieves for the loss of his mother, to know that people were putting in hard work to help them out was what tugged at his heart the most. He teared up, and told me that he could never describe how much it meant to him. It was a huge blessing to him on this difficult day. The handful of family members were feeling overwhelmed this morning and when they saw your group of men walking up with chain saws. It was like a celebration. They said amongst themselves, 'I don't know who they are, or where they came from, but thank God they are here.' I don't believe it was coincidence you ended up there today. I believe it was God's blessing on both them and you."
One nearby lake home that was no more than a pile of rubble had an American Flag waving above the debris as if the owners wanted to say, "We will not surrender. We are not defeated. We will return. We will rebuild."
John Enslen is a small town courtroom lawyer in Alabama who writes about Mormon history. He has been a history consultant for film artist T. C. Christensen and authored a book titled "The Bible and the Book of Mormon: Connecting Links." He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.