Dispatch #3 from the Alabama Tornado Zone: A Tight-Knit Community, the Red Cross ‘CSI’ Unit, Public Health Nursing

Panoramic view of Forest Lake Neighborhood in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Photo credit: Dennis Drenner/American Red Cross.

Sue Hassmiller, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Senior Adviser for Nursing, has been blogging from the area in Alabama recently devastated by tornadoes, where she’s volunteering with the Red Cross. This and all previous posts in this series are being collected on a separate page for easy reference.—JM, senior editor/blog editor

Hackleburg Is Gone!
Picture yourself in your present surroundings; take a look around at the buildings, the houses—and now try to picture them completely gone, with you standing right in the middle of it. That is what Hackleburg went through on April 27. Ninety percent of the small town is gone. You can tell that people lived there by the personal items strewn about, but you can hardly tell where the houses once stood. They have all been flattened. This is very different from the aftermath of the flood following Hurricane Katrina, when the flood-soaked houses were pretty much left standing.

Standing there in the middle of the rubble with family members, it’s hard for me to imagine how anyone survived this. But they did . . . at least most of them. This is a close-knit, church-going town, and are all there for one another. Their spirit is unfathomable. Frank (not real name) shows me where his sister was blown to and her medical bag, which he found. She was a paramedic. He shows me where they found the baby, and the fish pond his kids used to play in when they were small, and how he wishes the water and fish were still there. But they’re gone too. He wished he could show me the bathtub that saved his mother, but he can’t find it. He brought me to his “kinfolk” where they were eating their dinner: hot dogs on the grill and cupcakes from Walmart. They were happy to be alive—except for the matriarch, who asked God why He took her daughter and not her. The survivor guilt is unbearable. Frank tells me they will rebuild, love one another even more, and move on. I wonder how they will . . . .

Out and About as a Public Health Nurse
We were supposed to take off today, in honor of Mother’s Day, but I saw no purpose in sitting idle. My daughter, back in New Jersey, eased my separation anxiety by telling me that  every day was like Mother’s Day to her.

I attended church service in Hackleburg to help pray for the victims and to show the support of the Red Cross for the community. Besides, when you’re a public health nurse at heart, church services are good ways to get to know the community and find out additional needs. The people of this rural area are humble and grateful people and don’t take asking for assistance lightly. They can’t believe that so many people from around the country have come to help them. 

The afternoon found me on an emergency response vehicle (ERV) slated to deliver meals to the shut-ins; it also doubles as a low-key way to make health assistance visits. ERV drivers like taking either a nurse or mental health worker with them, since the needs are great. One woman with severe Parkinson’s disease showed me the chair in the tiny closet she sat in as the tornado blow over head. Two weeks later she is still shaken up, so I sit and talk with her a while. She couldn’t believe that God was allowing  her more time on earth. Another woman was showing early signs of congestive heart failure. I stayed while her daughter called the doctor and read him the list of symptoms that we’d prepared together: slight wheezing, leg swelling, minimal bathroom visits, wet cough, shortness of breath on exertion.  Verifying that she could get a ride to the pharmacy to pick up the Lasix, I was finally free to be on my way. Free food, we announced up one street and down another, and as we delivered the boxes, I said: I’m a nurse; are you ok?

Red Cross “CSI” Unit
Clara Barton started the Red Cross by spending time locating missing soldiers from both sides in the Civil War. That work still goes on at the Red Cross, especially at times of disaster. Some especially good work was done by this organization in reconnecting Holocaust victims to friends and family members. Now, there are a number of missing people in Alabama and we are on the hunt to find them.

The Red Cross CSI units, officially known as “Safe and Well Units,” are dispersed to do their interviews and put the pieces together. People are missing for a variety of reasons:  language barriers, getting sent to hospitals far from their homes, body parts not readily identifiable or blown far from their homes, people moving out of the area and not telling anyone, and more. The Safe and Well Unit doesn’t rest until every person has been found, either dead or alive. To help them with their work, we are all asking every client to register on the Safe and Well Web site, so friends and family from afar will rest easy knowing that their friend or loved one is accounted for.

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2016-11-21T13:13:16+00:00 May 9th, 2011|nursing perspective|1 Comment

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  1. April Wood May 13, 2011 at 9:27 am

    Sue,

    You are doing amazing work! Thank you for volunteering to help the survivors in Alabama.

    Stay safe,
    April

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