“It only took thirty seconds” – Clarke Students Provide Relief to Tornado Victims

“It only took thirty seconds. Thirty seconds for it [the tornado] to tear my home apart and to destroy my community.” –  Ms. Smith, Pratt City, Alabama resident.

On the night of April 27, 2011 a tornado tried to wipe Pratt City, Alabama off the map. But the survivors of refused to go along with the storm’s wishes.

The Pratt City community decided to rebuild.

On July 9th the people of Pratt City received a boost of support from ten Clarke County students who asked for nothing in return, but in the process of helping residents rebuild, received a gift that they will remember for the rest of their lives.

These ten Clarke County students traveled to Birmingham, Alabama with the National Relief Network (NRN), a non-profit student volunteer program on a mission to aid those in need after the devastating tornado tragedy. The students told the Clarke County School Board on Monday that they had never seen anything before in their lives that came close to the destruction they saw in Pratt

The tornado outbreak affected the south, midwest, and northeastern United States leaving catastrophic destruction in its wake, especially across the state of Alabama. An estimated 346 people were killed with 239 deaths in Alabama alone.

In the words of Samantha Pearson, a Clarke County High School senior:

“We started raising money in late May into July, and it cost over $500 per person but we raised so much, in thanks to the community, the donations helped us go down for no cost at all.  Ms. McLain from the High School was a huge help with helping our group raise money, organize as well as oversee our group (dubbed Bama Bound).”

“We teamed up with 30 other students from all across the United States, of all different nationalities and set up base at a local Baptist Church 40 minutes away from our work site in a suburb of the city of Birmingham, Pratt City. Our group was the only one in the Birmingham area after an EF-4 hit. Most volunteers were focused down in Tuscaloosa, Alabama to help deal with the damages there.”

“A typical day was an early rise at 6am, breakfast at 7 along with packing our lunches for the day and leaving for the site before 8am. When we got to the site we would work until noon, have lunch and then continue working until about 3pm. Because the heat was over 105 degrees and the humidity was crazy high all week we weren’t able to continue longer. Showers at a nearby state park at around 4 or 5pm with dinner soon after.”

“Our duty as a group that week was to demolish a house severely damaged by the tornado. Helping a woman (Ms. Smith) achieve what her insurance couldn’t cover. Smaller groups also worked with a neighbor, helping sorting through the belongings the tornado had spared. And nailing tarp onto roofs for those houses that still had a roof remaining, but was quite damaged.”

“I’ve never sweat so much in my life, it was literally dripping off of us. It was crazy to see how some houses were completely devastated, and like the house next to it was completely fine. Seeing such devastation first-hand is so much different than seeing it in a newspaper or on the television. You’re immersed with the community and their devastation, you get the sense of what it’s like to lose everything you have.”

“This experience was incredible. It really opens your eyes up to the world and got you to work as a complete team making friendships that will last a life time. We also had the opportunity to try new things (in this case tools), to work as a team, that uninstalling carpet that has water damage is no fun, how to destroy a door frame, how to use a chainsaw, how to take apart a bathtub and many more memorable skills that left us admiring actual demolishers.”

“I know the impact we left on that community in Pratt City was large. I remember when a man, driving by in his car out of the blue said to me, “It’s not every day I get to see Angels.” Many passersby, curious to see 40 some odd teenagers in yellow shirts work together on their neighbors home, shared there unforgettable tales of what it was like to live through the tornado and the chaos after it.”

“A truly blessing experience,” Pearson concludes.

Clarke students provided assistance to tornado victims in Pratt City, Alabama (l-r) Sara Clark, Mandy Kelliher, Lauren Kelliher, Tess Ashby and Madison Tyler - Photo Edward Leonard

In addition to Pearson, the Clarke County relief workers included senior Deanna Childs and underclassmen: Brittany Hagaman, Lauren Kelleher, Amelia Erickson    Mandy Kelleher, Madison Tyler, Victoria McManamay, Sara Clark, and Tess Ashby.

At last night’s  School Board  meeting, it was very clear the team of students hadn’t really been prepared for the level of damage and challenge they encountered when they got to Pratt City. But in the proudest tradition of American spirit, the girls rolled up their sleeves and literally “dug in” to the challenge.

“Even though the tornadoes came in April it still looked like the storms had hit just yesterday,” said Lauren Kelliher. “There was very little machinery available so we actually cleared the debris from one house all the way down to the foundation by hand. I think that it was the hardest work that any of us had ever done but it was also the most rewarding.”

Kelliher said that strangers would routinely walk up to the girls and express deep gratitude for the assistance that they were providing. More inspiring, Kelliher said, was the spirit that the girls saw in the people whose homes had been destroyed.

“Everyone there was still hopeful, no one was bitter,” said Kelliher. “Many people called the disaster a blessing in disguise because it has helped them to see how good the world still is.”

Kelliher said that girls slept and showered in a local state park for the week that they were in Pratt City. On the one day allotted for rest the girls decided to continue working after taking only a short break for a dip in a local pool.

“I think that we changed the way a lot of people there viewed teenagers,” Kelliher said. “We all decided that this is something that we like to do again.”

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  1. Way to go ladies! You should be proud of yourselves!

  2. sargewillis says:

    Great story, great kids, nice to know they showed folks what teenager are capable of. Be proud, you deserve it.

  3. CCHS student says:

    Thank you Stephanie Mc Lean for leading students to help their Alabama citizens. Tess Ashby, you are incredible! She went on the Grace Episcopal Church mission trip to New Orleans during 2011 spring break. She and others from CCHS helped huricane Katrina victims under the leadership of Cathy Brown in Berryville.