‘Some Pretty Bad Things’: Dispatch #2 from the Alabama Tornado Disaster

Susan 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 is her second update; it’s long, but it has some powerful details. This and all previous and upcoming posts in this series are being collected on a separate blog page, for easy reference.—Jacob Molyneux, senior editor/blog editor

Wednesday, May 4: I’ve seen some pretty bad things in my day, but this is really really bad. After having slept for only a few hours under the blare of gymnasium athletic lights which they could not figure out how to turn off, I head to the disaster headquarters in Birmingham with three other women. I’m fascinated by a nurse from Switzerland who lost her husband 20 years ago and has now made a living out of helping others in this way all over the world . . . a one woman Mother Theresa. I am impressed and honored to be with her. When I tell her what I do, she does NOT seem so impressed, commenting that it sounds like I do a lot of paperwork! Oh well.

I’m happy to finally arrive at headquarters, which is an old CompUSA building. I meet people there who I know from my 36 years of work with the organization. Because it is a big disaster, there are a number of people from national headquarters in DC. Almost immediately the public affairs department (yes, every large disaster has such departments or units . . . just like any business would) asks me to do an interview with the Birmingham Times.

The reporter asks me (on this, the beginning of Nurses Week) why nurses are here in Alabama and what they will be doing. So I tell her. I then tell my supervisors here in health services and public affairs that, if I am to talk to the media, then I need to immediately see what is going on so I can describe it . . . so that’s how I spend my first day.

Nevaeh Gladney, 10, in a cot at the Red Cross Shelter at Belk Activity Center in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Gladney's family lost their home. Photo credit: American Red Cross

I travel with two other women by car to Tuscaloosa, a heavily damaged city with many deaths. I arrive at a very busy shelter, which at another time and place serves as a major recreation center. It’s filled with hundreds of the most vulnerable of the city. Although the tornado hit public housing and very big houses alike, the people from the very big houses are not here. Although I’m sure they’re just as devastated, they usually have other means, so they don’t come to shelters. This is why the Red Cross is so important; they care for those in need, the most vulnerable, 24/7, whatever those needs might be.

The shelter has meal services, child care services, legal services, sleeping quarters (yes, the gymanasium), a medical clinic, and much more, including a place for FEMA to do its own work with these victims. Almost everyone is a volunteer .  . . and now that the volunteers of Birmingham, Tuscaloosa, and other nearby areas have gone above and beyond in giving back to their neighbors, it’s people from all over the country who have come to help out.  And the needs are enormous: medical, psychological, financial, you name it!

‘Oh my God!’ A doctor from NC who has been there for a few days takes me out to see the damage. I find myself repeating the same words over and over: “oh my God” and “I cannot believe this” and “indeed I can’t.” When I learn of the hundreds of deaths, I am wondering how there weren’t thousands.

Homes are completely flattened, 100-year-old trees snapped like toothpicks, and personal items are everywhere, still, a week later. A purse here, a stuffed bear there, a woman’s purple bra, a can of green beans, a television set, a black shoe, a baby pacifier . . . all items wondering how they got to where they got to and their owners . . . well, most likely dead or injured.

‘In a tree, asleep.’ I understand that bodies were found far from their homes. A young boy traveling the streets the day after the tornado, when asked where his parents were, stated that they were up in a tree, asleep, and would not come down. These are the stories of Tuscaloosa, Alabama . . . and more to come.

Thursday, May 5: Caring for the most vulnerable. Back to Tuscaloosa today . . . this time with Katherine, a manager specializing in ensuring that all Red Cross shelters are following the Americans with Disabilities (ADA) laws, and Mary, a nurse who specializes in hospital preparedness and response and infection control. I see the shelter I visited yesterday through their eyes now. Basically, these ladies are there to ensure that all clients get the best care possible and that it conforms to all ADA laws.

We talk to people in wheelchairs to ensure they can get back and forth comfortably and that the kitchen knows that there are many diabetics in the shelter and that there is signage about how to wash your hands and blow your nose. We notice that prescription drugs are not locked up and say that they should be. We have to make sure there is a quiet room for an autistic boy and that the lady with bladder issues is close to the bathroom.  We learn that there are senior citizens out in the community who will not leave their homes, but are living without electricity and gas . . . people who are ill. We note that they must have home visits. We realize that there must be “just-in-time training” for the many volunteers to ensure they are complying with all laws.

The nurses are essential: they understand human needs. All volunteers here are important (logistics, meal service, emergency vehicle drivers, shelter managers, mental health workers, couriers, and more), but the nurses have the ability to assess the overall circumstances of the human condition, apply their skills, and refer on to others as needed. It was a nurse who picked up on the needs of Mr. W at one of the shelters we visited:

Mr. W did not lose his house, but he did lose his one-year-old niece, and he cannot not get over it. A flying brick hit the baby in the head and she died almost instantly. Not fair, he said, too much life to live! How could this happen?! He said that one day he will get over it, but not anytime soon. He is depressed and unemployed.

What he saw at the hospital: He also cannot get the hospital scene out of his head from just hours after the tornado hit. With houses gone and familiar landmarks no longer, he walked for an hour groping through trees to find the local hospital to check on family members. Mr. W said that there were blood and bodies everywhere (which I will not describe further). It was there that he found out about his niece.

He is an educator by background, but he cannot hide his sorrow and depression from the kids, so he cannot and will not do that kind of work anymore. We praise him for talking about his situation and comment on his strength. We say that we are glad he is seeing a counselor every day and that we are there for him. He hugs Katherine and then he hugs me, thanking us for caring.

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2016-11-21T13:13:17+00:00 May 6th, 2011|nursing perspective|3 Comments

About the Author:

Senior editor/social media strategy, American Journal of Nursing, and editor of AJN Off the Charts.

3 Comments

  1. Julie Fairman May 17, 2011 at 4:35 pm

    thank you for sharing these experiences with us. I can only imagine how they shape the other kinds of work you do. This experience must have been incredibly grounding and formative for the work you have undertaken on the Future of Nursing. Thank you!

  2. james moody lpn May 9, 2011 at 8:48 pm

    Thank you for bringing this heart and life changing story to others. From one red cross volunteer to another thank you keeo the lamp burning.

  3. Michael Bleich May 8, 2011 at 6:44 pm

    Thank you for sharing this in real-time. As always, you have a way of just calling it the way it is. I can feel, though your writing, the pain and angst.

    I’m glad nurses are there and part of the team. It is a fitting way to spend Nurses Week – in service to others.

    We are there with you in spirit and will send resources through the Red Cross.

    On behalf of all, please know that our energy and spirits are with you.

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