WBHM 90.3 FM
Your NPR News Station

On April 27, 2011, a violent storm system ripped across the Southeastern US, spawning dozens of tornadoes. Alabama was hardest hit, with hundreds of people killed, thousands of homes, businesses and government buildings destroyed and lives forever changed. The afternoon of the storms, WBHM's News Team provided wall-to-wall radio coverage until they were forced to leave the studio and shelter in an interior room while a massive EF5 tornado passed just a few miles north of the radio station. Even then, WBHM news director Tanya Ott was filing a story (by phone, from under her desk) for National Public Radio.

Listen to that report here.

Shortly after the tornado passed, WBHM's small news team (just 3 reporters, two of whom are on-air hosts 20 hours a week) fanned out across the region to bring listeners the stories of devastation, search and recovery, and rebuilding. The following are stories they produced for WBHM. Many of these stories were also heard on National Public Radio.

The morning after the tornado, WBHM's Tanya Ott walked a mile, then talked her way past National Guard and police authorities to get into one of Birmingham's hardest hit communities.

Here's a link to that story (audio, transcript and photos included).

The next day, WBHM's Andrew Yeager traveled about an hour north of Birmingham to Cullman, Alabama, which was still digging out from a Tornado there. The following is his story (source URL: http://www.wbhm.org/News/2011/tornados-cullman.html)

90.3 WBHM Cullman--President Obama spent Friday morning touring tornado-ravaged neighborhoods in Tuscaloosa. He says he's never seen such devastation. Almost 300 people have died so far from tornados which blanketed the south Wednesday. More than two thirds of the deaths are in Alabama . For survivors, one of the biggest issues to deal with is no power. WBHM's Andrew Yeager reports.

At the Cullman Civic Center volunteers and national guard troops unload cases of water. Plopping them down off the back of a pick up truck.

"They're all right in there. Go to the front."

A volunteer waves them into the building. It's become the official shelter and command center since the Red Cross building here was destroyed. Inside volunteers, response workers and storm victims line up in the gym, eager grab lunch. Nancy Schnur's house survived the storm. But like many in the north Alabama, she has no power.

"Everything in our freezer and refrigerator is gone. So we're coming here to eat."

And because local businesses are without power, too, there was plenty to eat for lunch. A restaurant that lost power donated food that would otherwise have spoiled. As Diane Sharpton eats her lunch she explains finding stores open to buy food has been a challenge.

"As far as I know there was only two or three yesterday. I think more is open today for so many hours."

But Sharpton did manage to find an open store. All you can buy though are canned foods, bread and non-perishable items. And it's cash or check only. Cullman City worker Darrell Johns say he's seen banks still trying to conduct business. They're using pen and paper instead of computers.

"You're having to do everything just about by hand. Sometimes there's a line but been able to get checks deposited and cash back and things like that."

Lynn Robinson is with the local Red Cross. She says people initially didn't know where to go after the storm. But as word has gotten out, more people are streaming into the shelter. Generators are on the way. But people's needs go far beyond that.

"We've had people that need ice for insulin.

The local hospital donated that.

"We also are in need of diapers so we've had wonderful churches to come in and bring lots of diapers, formula, food."

But Robinson is more concerned about fuel. Many gas stations are without electricity. So while they may have fuel, they can't pump it up from the tanks. Robinson has to pick up her husband at Birmingham's airport today.

"So I'm taking my gas cans there and filling up there and then bringing him home to help at the shelter here."

Along the highway out of Cullman, the lights are off but the door is wide open at Jerry Pierce's gas station. He of course can't pump gas. It's cash only. But he's doing what he can.

"We've been able to sell the inside, water, the drinks, what people could get for food because all the fast food restaurants are closed here in Cullman, you know.

Pierce says he has a generator coming. That'll at least allow the station to pump gas. No debit or credit cards through. That's a phone line issue. And he won't use the generator for the coolers, so the drinks won't be cold. Of course, it was supposed to arrive two hours ago.

"It's one of those 'check's in the mail' deal."

Pierce and the rest of northern Alabama will be waiting a lot longer for real electricity. Utility officials estimate another seven to nine days for power across the region to be fully restored.

~ Andrew Yeager (with Ben Johnson), April 29, 2011.

(Source URL: http://www.wbhm.org/News/2011/tornadochurches.html)

90.3 WBHM Birmingham--Governor Robert Bentley has declared Sunday a day of prayer for victims of the tornados which swept through the south on Wednesday. Alabama is a state where religious faith is ever present and a rallying point for communities. WBHM's Andrew Yeager offers this glimpse of how churches are weathering the storm.

Bryan Mitchell is trying to give away food and water. He and other volunteers from Birmingham's Church of the Highlands drive through the hard hit Pratt City neighborhood.

"Yes m'am, we've got hamburgers. How many do you need? Just two?"

The pick up truck bed is stacked with not just burgers, but chips, cookies and drinks. Also, ketchup if you need it. Scottie Hill sits in front of her uncle's damaged home. Her house is next door, cock-eyed on the foundation. Hill says she's glad to see the church groups, because they're here to help, not gawk.

"It's a blessing just for somebody to come by and pass you a bottle of water. And not to mention food and toiletries. The things that you need. So I just consider that a real blessing."

Church of the Highlands is a 14,000 member suburban mega church. So they've deployed people across north central Alabama, working around the clock. Associate Pastor Robert Record is trying to coordinate the efforts.

"The real problem is logistics here, is matching up resources and needs."

One need might be a ride to a shelter. Or chain saws to cut through trees. Meanwhile, food, water and relief supplies are coming in from across the country.

"By the end of the day Tuesday we'll have eleven 18-wheelers will have come from Virginia alone."

Record says that sounds like a lot, but it'll go straight to victims and first responders. The need is that great.

Many churches around Birmingham are offering food and collecting supplies. Still others are preparing for the next step.

"Good morning! This is my name badge I'm taking off."

Trisa Moutardier registers at this early response training hosted by First Methodist Church in Alabaster. She's actually missing her son's soccer game. The training will create teams to go into disaster areas after first responders have finished their jobs. They'll help clean up debris, stabilize homes and assess damage. Moutardier has never done this before. So she's anxious, but hopeful.

"I think that if we go out there and just lend a helping hand I think you feel better about yourself when you help somebody else and there's a lot of things you can't do but we can go out and help them."

Christy Smith runs this workshop for the United Methodist Committee on Relief. She says in a place like Alabama, where people are generally more religious, there is something different about relief work by a church. People expect God's help.

"We'll show up at a door and someone will say 'I'm not surprised to see you. I know God would send someone.'"

But these are all efforts by people mostly left untouched by the storms. That's not the case with everyone.

"Wow, that's our church and we've been there 30 years."

Kamisha Quates goes to Bethel Baptist Church. It's in that decimated Pratt City area of Birmingham. Sanctuary walls are gone. Two by fours and insulation cover the pews. Many of the 2,000 congregants live in the neighborhood, but Quates says miraculously no one from the church died. Bethel will hold a service today at a Fair Park Arena. Quates expects emotions will run from sadness to joy.

"I think we're gonna have a spirit filled service, you know, a spirit-filled, move-of-God service. At least that's what I'm hoping for myself."

Quates says they've found a location to meet for the rest of the year and there's no question they'll rebuild. They've lost the church building, she emphasizes. Not their church.

~ Andrew Yeager, May 1, 2011.

Two days later, Tanya Ott was up in the northwest part of Alabama reporting from the small town of Hackleberg. Several dozen of its 1,400 residents died in the storm. Here's a link to the story Tanya filed for National Public Radio (audio, transcript and photos included).

The next day, reporter Bradley George was in the northeast part of the state reporting on the effects of the storm on the poultry industry. Poultry is a $5 billion business for Alabama (third largest in the country) and the tornadoes killed millions of birds and destroyed hundreds of poultry houses. Here's the story Bradley filed for National Public Radio (audio, transcript and photos included).

A month out from the tornadoes there were still significant numbers of residents living in temporary shelters and attention focused on the need for mental health care and other support services. (Source URL: http://www.wbhm.org/News/2011/tornadomentalhealth.html)

90.3 WBHM Birmingham--Victims of April's tornadoes have endured a whirlwind of emotions. It's virtually impossible to live through such a disaster and not endure mental stress and strain. But the adrenaline and shock of those first few days are wearing off, bringing on a new set of mental health concerns. WBHM's Andrew Yeager reports.

Kelly Falls didn't see the tornadoes close up. She was traveling with her daughter on a school field trip. They were watching the weather channel on the bus, so she knew a tornado hit her hometown of Pleasant Grove.

"And I called my husband and he's a six-foot five, 275 pound man and he was about hysterical."

Falls' family was safe, but their house was destroyed. She here at a survivors support meeting put on by the Pleasant Grove United Methodist Church. Falls is very type A, which made the aftermath very frustrating.

"I was wanting to, you know, organize things. You can't organize a house that's in a million pieces."

Kelly Falls is still upbeat. She wears a t-shirt that reads "I was in the hands of God and I survived April's fury." A friend made it for her. But about a week-and-half ago, she broke down.

"I couldn't even complete a sentence without crying. It's like everything finally hit. I just had this overwhelming feeling I just wanted to go home."

"That's normal given the circumstances."

UAB Clinical Psychologist Joshua Klapow says it's expected survivors will hit an emotional wall now that their immediate needs are taken care of. First, comes the realization the recovery process will take a long time. Then the logistics and paperwork of rebuilding can seem daunting.

"Those two things can make people feel very helpless, very hopeless."

Klapow says most people will feel really down for a time. But there is risk for more serious conditions, such as clinical depression, anxiety, Post-traumatic Stress Disorder or alcoholism. Shannon Polson volunteers with the Red Cross Disaster Mental Health team in Birmingham. She says she watches out for signs such as persistent sleep deprivation, long-term loss of appetite, large outbursts of anger.

"We all have what I call an anger tank. There's only so much you have inside you to give. And when it starts filling up, you know, you need to let some of it go so you're not exploding on the people around you."

Alabama's mental health community has been working to offer victims ways to "let some of it go." The state's Mental Health Commissioner Zelia Baugh says her office is partnering with the Red Cross, county mental health centers and faith-based groups to put counselors in the field and connect people with resources. And in a sense, she explains, Alabama's Department of Mental Health went through this recently with last year's gulf oil spill.

In that disaster, the state set up a singular toll free number for mental health needs. Baugh says one for the tornadoes is on the way.

"This is a one point of entry, so that people don't have to call 15 different places. That compounds the frustration that's already there."

Baugh says she expects the tornado line to be open by the end of June.

UAB's Joshua Klapow says most people will rebound from the tornadoes with time. Some may need short-term counseling. Others more significant treatment. But he says taking mental health seriously now will mean fewer problems later. Just as a physical wound can become infected, mental trauma can fester.

Klapow adds the community at large can play a role by reminding victims through words and actions that we aren't going anywhere.

"They know that there are other tornadoes, there are other world events, and they want to know that not necessarily you're gonna be there every day, but the services and support are going to be there."

Back at Pleasant Grove United Methodist Church, Pastor John Gates has dubbed their tornado support meetings "Survivor School." It's been a learning experience for the church. They're trying to strike that careful, sensitive balance.

"We want to be as much a support for them as we can and not bother them with it. Not chase them around with it, but be there for them when they need it."

An approach that will apply for months to come, if not longer.

~ Andrew Yeager, May 30, 2011.