BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (BP)–Clarence Smith, a 71-year-old semi-retired brick mason, hid in his chimney hearth during the storms that ravaged Alabama in April.
“It was scary,” said Smith, a widower who lives on a dead-end street in the Pratt City neighborhood of Birmingham.
He heard the trees snapping and felt the thump of debris striking his house. When he emerged, Smith was one of the fortunate ones. Even though every tree within 75 yards of his 35-year-old home was on the ground, his house only suffered minor roof damage and his deck was missing a few rails.
One block over, it’s a different story. Whole neighborhoods are leveled. People’s homes are now a mass of timber, trees and debris. A late-model Ford Explorer SUV is buried beneath a downed pine tree. One house is missing most of its roof and exterior walls, but two glass chandeliers still hang in what’s left of the kitchen.
Smith has been through bad weather before. This time he knew where to hide.
“Houses get cleaned off to the slab, but you always see the brick chimneys left standing after the storms. The chimneys are still there. And I built my chimney,” he said.
Smith lives atop one of the area’s tallest hills. Blue tarps serve as temporary shingles for most remaining structures. Schools and churches prepare community meals, and smiling volunteers hand out frozen popsicles to sweat-and-dirt-laden relief workers and contractors.
One Alabama Baptist disaster relief coordinator estimated only 10 percent of the debris had been removed since the deadly storms more than a month ago.
Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley announced that the Federal Emergency Management Agency had granted his request for an extension of Operation Clean Sweep, the program aimed at removing storm debris. The extension will last for an additional 30 days — until July 12.
“There’s still so much that needs to be done here,” said Art Snead, a disaster relief team leader from Long Hollow Baptist Church in Hendersonville, Tenn.
Snead, a LifeWay Christian Resources employee and father of four, has been organizing and leading weekend trips to tornado-stricken areas like Pratt City and Pleasant Grove.
Over Memorial Day weekend, Snead led his third volunteer trip. Ten other churchgoers from Long Hollow’s multiple campuses gathered May 27 at the Hendersonville site with chainsaws, baby formula and a blue Ford tractor.
The team arrived at NorthPark Baptist Church in Trussville, Ala., which has hosted about 15 disaster relief teams from as far away as Fort Smith, Ark.
Alabama Baptist disaster relief leaders arranged for the Long Hollow team to work first on Smith’s property.
Arriving at Smith’s treeless lot, overwhelmed members of the team could be overheard saying, “Oh my” and “Where do we start?”
But, using their blue Ford tractor and grunt labor, the team brought down several damaged trees, removed Smith’s destroyed chain-link fence and cleared his lot around his storage shed.
No one on the team expected Smith, at 71, to do any work. But he battled the heat, dragged heavy tree sections and limbs and pushed wheel barrels loaded with debris.
“With his background as a brick mason, he could probably outwork us all,” said Steve Field, a civil engineer and Long Hollow Sunday School teacher. “We might have been faster, but he could probably work longer.”
Smith teared up as he thanked the team for their efforts. Snead and the Long Hollow volunteers gathered around Smith and prayed for him before leaving for another job.
Less than a block away, 63-year-old Julius Jackson asked the team to remove a downed 65-foot-tall tree from his yard.
Members of the team scrambled along the branches with chainsaws in hand. Large portions were pulled by the tractor and all the debris was placed beside the road for the professional removal crews.
“I don’t know how I would’ve gotten this job finished,” Jackson said. “God bless you all for coming down.”
One man, who only identified himself as Mr. Carl, was overcome with emotion after the Long Hollow team removed a few trees from his side yard. He kept saying, “Praise God. Praise God.”
“I just want to offer a big word of thanks,” Pratt City native Kathy Smith said after the team removed nearly 10 trees from her lot. Kathy and her oldest daughter hid in their bathroom as the tornadoes destroyed parts of the town.
“Thanks for letting us come and serve you,” Snead told Smith.
Hillman Mann, an anatomy and physiology professor at Volunteer State College in Gallatin, Tenn., and one of the Long Hollow volunteers, said, “We might not be able to change the world, but each person can change their little piece of it. In just two days, the team helped nine tornado victims in all.”
“We didn’t even put a dent in the damage cleanup,” said Rachael Dyer, a 19-year-old college student, “but we were able to make a difference for a few people.”
For several of the Long Hollow team members, this was their first disaster relief trip. For others, helping people is part of their normal routine.
Joe and Betsy Brentise have been on two medical mission trips to Haiti since the deadly earthquake that struck Port-au-Prince last year.
Joe is a flight nurse with Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, while Betsy is a nurse practitioner at Saint Thomas Hospital.
“This is how I relax,” Joe said. “We were going to go to Haiti again, but I didn’t have the time off.”
Wayne Foreman, a Long Hollow volunteer, noted, “Oftentimes on trips like this, you — the volunteer — are the one who is blessed. It’s good to help people like this. It helps them remember they are not forgotten.”
Foreman has been on three mission trips as well, including two to Africa.
“That’s what I like about Long Hollow. There are so many ways to get involved. As a believer, you always need to stay involved in missions,” Foreman said.
“As Christians,” Mann said, “this is where we get to put all those flowery words in action.”
Jon D. Wilke is media relations manager for LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention.