REDSTONE ARSENAL, Ala.--In times of need, people generally look to their immediate community for support such as family, friends and neighbors.

During and after the tornadoes and severe storms that began the morning of April 27 and crippled several communities in the local area, many turned to Good Shepherd United Methodist Church in Madison.

The church became a temporary home to displaced families and individuals and an immediate emergency management operations center with hundreds of eager volunteers flowing in each day to help. The church gym has become a collection point for food supplies, clothing and basic needs. The church hall is where folks whose homes have been damaged or destroyed come in to sign up for help.

"Good Shepherd is primarily a church shelter," Rev. David Tubbs, senior pastor at Good Shepherd said. The night of April 27, almost 700 people crammed inside. Two rooms are constructed with 18-inch reinforced concrete and steel, able to withstand the deadliest of tornadoes.

"The two tornado rooms can 'uncomfortably' house up to 300 people," Tubbs said. "That night, we had between 600-700 people packed inside, and we put them just about anywhere we knew it would be safe.

"After the storm, they all left. Then folks started drifting back in. There was no home to return to. They were either destroyed or didn't have roofs to protect them from the rain."

Approximately 30 people spent the first night in the church. Eventually many of them were able to stay with family and friends and have received help.

"After the storm, the Red Cross designated our church as an emergency shelter," Tubbs said. Representatives from the Federal Emergency Management Agency have also been helping people with claims with an additional team of four going out into the community to establish contacts.

Ray Sellers, an active church volunteer, has been lending a helping hand since the beginning of the recovery operations.

"This is a great community," Sellers, chief of staff for the Program Executive Office for Aviation, said. He has helped to cook, clean the bathrooms, mop the floors, wash the dishes and anything else that was asked. "Anything you can do is helping the church and the community. So many people just want to help and there are still a lot of people needing help out there," he said.

On May 3, Maj. Gen. Tim Crosby, program executive officer for aviation, contacted Sellers to see if there was a way for Lt. Gen. Bill Phillips, principal military deputy to the Assistant Secretary for the Army for Acquisition, Logistics and Technology, to help with the recovery operations. A native of Bell Buckle, Tenn., Phillips had originally come to Huntsville on a business trip. Sellers contacted Tubbs and Dave Bonwit, Good Shepherd's shelter team leader, and the ball started rolling.

And when given the chance, Phillips didn't hesitate to take the opportunity to give back. "I'm fired up," Phillips said.

"Today, our team is going to go out to some of the homes to cut trees, clear debris, help move items from people's houses and save items that can be salvaged," Sellers said.

The first stop was to the residences of Dixie Trent and Vicki Bates. Bates' home was declared a total loss having had a tree fall through her house during the storm. She had taken shelter with Trent and considers herself very fortunate to have survived.

"These are just things. They can be rebuilt," Bates said. What she needed help with was to clear the debris from entrances to her house so she can retrieve what was salvageable and most importantly, the things that no one can replace. There were many mementos passed on to her by her father, who died April 26, 2010.

Trent was a bit more fortunate. Her home, while having sustained damage, was habitable and reparable. She did, however, need help clearing trees and taking the debris to the edge of the street where it could be collected.

The team's second stop was to the home of James Leslie, a Vietnam veteran whose house was declared a total loss. The house and where it stood held extra special meaning to Leslie however, and he decided to repair and rebuild where it was needed instead of having the house bulldozed. Leslie was excited when he heard Phillips was coming to his house. "I can't believe I'm going to have a general in my home," he said smiling.

Approximately 100 volunteers were swarming in and around Leslie's residence when the team arrived. The house had been in shambles just a few days prior. That morning, the new roof was almost complete.

"I am humbled by what they've achieved in just a short time," Phillips said of the volunteers. "I am amazed at the resiliency of this community and their willingness to help others and to give back."

Volunteers had been busy ripping out damaged floor boards, insulation, taking out debris and cleaning the area. Outside, teenagers and adults took turns breaking damaged blocks from the shed and salvaging those that can be re-used.

Volunteers were continuously buzzing around, picking up any tool that can be used and applying them where they were needed. Some shoveled debris onto wheelbarrows. Others hauled them away. Some carefully carried salvageable items and pieces of the house to the side. Others were continuously going in and out of the house to see what else needed to be done.

"It's inspiring," Bonwit, an employee of Stanley & Associates, said. "That's the only way I can describe it. Every time you turn around, there is somebody there."
The first day after the storm, Bonwit said there must have been thousands of volunteers that descended upon the neighborhoods and were quickly clearing debris and helping total strangers. "They were like worker ants," he said.

As the team drove through some of the devastated neighborhoods, electrical work crews, Red Cross trucks and cars with license plates from Georgia, Tennessee, Florida, Texas and Missouri were visible at almost every turn. Overnight since the storm, thousands of volunteers have flocked to the area. Friends told friends, and various church groups from different denominations arrived in teams. Eventually, the churches will adopt families and help them get back on their feet, Bonwit said.

"Having Lt. Gen. Phillips come out made a big difference to these families, especially to our veterans and active duty military members," Sellers said. "Phillips didn't have to come, but he chose to stay. It's a special moment for these folks to talk to a three-star general and see him get his hands dirty to help them out."

"It can get pretty emotional," Bonwit said. "People who have never had to ask for help in their lives. Now they need some help, and are too shy to ask for it."

Bonwit and his team have knocked on doors, asking families what they need. "Usually the response I've gotten is, 'You should go next door to my neighbor' or 'You should stop by this other person's place. They need more help than I do.'

"They're still thinking about others even though you can see that they've just lost everything," Bonwit said. "And they still find ways to give back. What inspires me is that there are so many people willing to give whatever they have."

Bonwit was speaking of people like James Gresham, a Desert Storm veteran who lost his home from the tornado and spends all day at the church to help. And Kym Capps who has offered her time since the first day of the recovery operations to cook and feed three meals a day to all the volunteers.

"We have folks coming in from Tennessee that brought us supplies," Tubbs said.

Because of all the donations, the church is able to feed its volunteers three meals a day with snacks available anytime for anyone.
"Feeding people and supplying them with basic needs are the least of my problems," Tubbs said. He never really had to ask for help. The day after the storm, hundreds of volunteers piled in and simply started to work. People around the community dropped off donations of food, clothing, bedding and diapers - almost anything anyone would ever need. Wilson Lumber donated a truck with lumber inside. "We've also been using it to store tarps and other supplies," Tubbs said.

"I am humbled by your service to the community," Phillips told Tubbs, Bonwit and Sellers. "It reminds me of the days growing up in Tennessee. Service to the community."

"I've done a lot of work," Sellers said, "(but compared to many in the church) I've just scratched the surface. Every time I come, these guys are already here (working). And they're still here when I go home. Continue your prayers for those who have been affected."

Although the church currently has plenty of goods, they can always use volunteers, help with cleanup and monetary donations.

As the team drove through the ravaged neighborhoods, they were struck by the contrast of the scenery. One moment, everything looked normal. The next, they found themselves looking at a neighborhood that was devastated by the storm. Homes splintered into pieces like matchsticks and wood chips spread across the lawn. Telephone poles wrapped around fences. Trees with trunks as big as a small house pulled out from their bases. Many with American flags waving as the only standing structure in a pile of debris.

And volunteers swarming like ants helping to rebuild the community.

Page last updated Thu May 19th, 2011 at 10:30