Alabama tornadoes: How you can help


Over the weekend, I read several beautifully written, deeply moving essays about the deadly line of tornadoes that swept through Alabama last week. I wanted to share a few of those essays here, as well as let people know where you can donate to help the many, many people left homeless by this disaster.

First, my old Alabama buddy Kyle Whitmire wrote a piece for CNN called "When a Monster Came to Alabama".

There is no getting accustomed to natural disasters, but in Alabama tornado emergencies are seasonal part of life. I was in first grade the first time our teachers took us into the hall and taught us to line up against the walls and curl in the fetal position with our hands covering our necks. I can't remember how old I was when my mom made me climb into an empty bathtub, but I do remember her lugging a mattress into the bathroom to throw over me in case things got bad ...

You look for the "debris ball" that means a twister is on the ground. And when they get close, you hide in a windowless room, closet or hallway. If you're on the road, you're supposed to pull off and hide in a ditch, although I'm not sure many folks actually do. Then you wait. Maybe it kills you. Probably it doesn't. When it's over, you call your family to say you're safe and ask them if they're safe. And then you look around outside to see if it's all still there. The experience is terrifying, but it comes with the exhilaration Winston Churchill attributed to being shot at and missed. Of course, nature doesn't always miss.

The other essay comes from writer Brian Oliu. It's something he pieced together at the Tuscaloosa public library, not quite sure whether he'd have the Internet access to post it.

[Tuscaloosa] is where I have lived, worked, and wrote for the past six years, made art, made friends, made mistakes, always making. At some point, the town was called "Tuscalooska", but there was an executive decision at some point to drop the "K", perhaps it made the town sound too stammering, too unsure of itself. There are some old buildings in Alberta City that still had signs that had the "K" still in the name. Those buildings are gone now ...

Commonly, I hear "You live in Alabama? Why?" from folks up north. The effort that has been put forward during these past few days is why. Tuscaloosa has given me more than I can ever repay it for, and now that it needs my help, I am trying the best that I can. One of the jokes I heard a lot when I first moved to Alabama is "You're studying writing in Alabama? Do they even know how to write?" The short answer is yes: they do know how to write. They know how to do a lot of things. They know how to come together. They know how to love. They know how to rebuild.

But as they clean up and rebuild, the people of Alabama do need help. Thousands of people lost their homes. They need basic necessities. The organizations supporting them need money.

• If you'd like to donate supplies, check out this list of needed items. At the bottom of the list is an address to donate supplies by mail, and a list of places in Alabama where supplies can be dropped off.

• There's a long list of places you can donate money, ranging from the Red Cross and United Way, to the Alabama Governor's Relief Fund, religious charities, and Habitat for Humanity.

• If you're in the area and want to donate your time and labor, you can do that, too. Hands on Birmingham is a great organization that's coordinating volunteer efforts within that city. Serve Alabama is a government initiative that's registering volunteers for the whole state.

Image: Tami Chappell / Reuters



  1. Margue – thank you *so* much for posting this. I am a native Alabamian who has lived in San Francisco for the past 12 years and I am in final preparations to move at the end of the month with my partner of 11 years to Arkansas, where he grew up. It’s been tough and amazing watching the coverage and aftermath of the disaster in my home state.

    There are a myriad of reasons why we’re leaving “paradise” as so many people here think of the Bay Area but Brian’s essay is one of the prime reasons. I’ve had to explain so so many times that the South is progressive, smart, hard working, all those things people think it’s not. The sense of community, of living in a shared world where we have each other is simply not present in San Francisco, at least by our perspective.

    -Eric in SF

  2. Thank you for your article. It’s really bad here. We just got our electricity back running two hours ago. It’s unreal.

    We’re finding personal items from over 110 miles away sitting in our yard. We’re well aware that in order for those items to be in my yard it means it came from houses that were destroyed.

  3. Thank you for these links!

    Something has been puzzling me for a long time. I keep hearing that most houses- especially mobile homes- in tornado alley don’t have basements/cellars. Considering that the safest place during a tornado is underground (and that being in a closet won’t do much if your entire home gets tossed into pieces), why aren’t there more underground shelters by now? My area doesn’t get many tornadoes; but we do get them sometimes (more often recently) and the official emergency procedure is short and simple: “get to the basement!”

    Seems odd to me that people in earthquake areas get building codes to reduce casualties but not the people living with the regular threat of tornadoes. Of course, tornadoes strike fast and it wouldn’t save everyone, but it would be nice for them to have a more sensible place to hide in during a T-alert instead of sitting in plywood closets and hope like heck that serendipity alone works in their favour.

    Perhaps I am missing some important details, but it’s been bugging me…

    1. I live in the area, and every basement I’ve ever been in here is above ground on at least one side. Alabama is second only to Louisiana in annual rainfall, so it might be required by code (just a guess!) that basements only be built on terrain where one side can be above grade, in order to prevent flooding.

    2. I’ll add one thing to what other people have said here: Frostlines.

      In Kansas, which gets a lot of tornadoes and where most houses have basements, it is also gets colder in winter. You have to dig down several feet into the earth to set foundations for buildings, where they won’t be shifted around by freeze-thaw every year. By the time you’re that far down, digging out a basement isn’t much of an added expense.

      In Alabama, the frostline is two inches. I know this because we replaced the plumbing on our house to the street while we lived in Birmingham, and it was seriously like we just scrapped out a little trench and then kicked some dirt over it. I’ve moved more dirt planting a sapling in Minnesota. In Alabama, the cost of a basement can’t be rolled into the cost of the foundation. It’s an entire separate expense. And a big one.

  4. There are bits of insulation and window curtains in the yard. The nearest tornado passed 5 miles from here. We got power back yesterday.

  5. One more thing that you can do to help – especially if you’re not located close to the disaster: become a digital volunteer.

    Many people help out during disaster response and recovery by sorting through and identifying critical data from social media and turning it into useful, actionable data for first responders, emergency operation centers, NGO’s etc…

    Here’s one such request for help from Heather Blanchard (@poplifegirl) of Crisis Commons via twitter:

    @poplifegirl: “Volunteer to help Alabama EOC sort Twitter data and Map Sign up today! Need sorters, mappers and project mgrs!

    For more info, please see the Crisis Commons “April Tornados” Wiki:

    Best Regards,

    Scott Reuter
    Digital Volunteer

  6. @Sekino – I don’t know if it’s true of Alabama, but in many places in the south, the water table is very close to the surface (2-10 feet deep), so there isn’t enough earth to dig a basement.

  7. Anon #1 here again!

    Sekino – 19th century farmhouses frequently had a tornado shelter – remember the scene from the start of the Wizard of OZ? I suspect that modern homes don’t have them simply because of the expense. Building a house today with a basement can double the cost of the home in many places. Blasting is not unheard of in many areas if you want to install a basement.

    Why are the codes not requiring it? Well, I know Alabamians in general are some of the most independent (from government) people you will find. Being told what to do with their property by the government is highly unpopular. Only when an entire community agrees that a new bit of housing code or zoning law is good for everyone do those things get done. Maybe things will change after this disaster, who knows.

    Finally, most tornadoes are F0 or F1, not the F5 monsters that hit everywhere. A home will be damaged/destroyed by an F0/1 but the survival rate for hunkering down in a windowless interior room is much much higher than when an F5 hits.

    Mobile home parks are a whole different story. They are frequently the only affordable housing in a region and by their very nature are impossible to harden against high winds.

    Hope this helps.

  8. I spent a week in Birmingham just last year. There was not a day when someone didn’t explain to me that “We just love Jesus so much here.” I’ve never experienced that anywhere else.

    1. There _are_ nonreligious people in Alabama, but like Anne Frank, they are hard to spot. :)

  9. I see. Thanks for all the responses! It all makes more sense to me now, even though I still think it’s sad that they can’t get the best kind of protection :(

  10. First of all, save all your bleeding heart charity. Alabama is a state that doesn’t want hand-outs. Setting up donations demeans both them and us.

    Here’s how you can best help your friends and neighbors living in Alabama:

    Encourage them to stop voting for politicians who a) aren’t concerned about the climate and b) want to eviscerate the social safety net.

    Until then….

    “They know how to come together. … They know how to rebuild.”

    Good luck, Alabama, you’ll be getting a lot more practice.

    1. Interesting comment. How about the way people vote for politicians who believe that other states and the federal government has no business sending federal aid? If, during the non-disasters they are constantly saying, “Shrink government! Cut Taxes!” after the disaster is it fair to go to them and say. “Okay, we are not going to give you anything since you said you didn’t want government and you didn’t want to pay taxes.”

      What happens is that during this time they suddenly become quiet. Their is nobody in power who says, “You weren’t there to contribute for others, so we aren’t going to be there for you.”

      The selfish policies of these people are not used to punish them, because the people who believe in the need for taxes and government aren’t as cruel as the “Cut Taxes, shrink government” people.

      Yet these people should be interviewed by the media and asked, “Are you going to change your mind about the need for taxes now and the need for Government? Or are you going to admit your views are cruel and sick? Will you turn down aid and demand that everyone who talks like you do the same? In the future will you start changing your tune? If not, why not?”

    2. Ahem. I have lived in Alabama all my life. I’m white and male and voted for Obama. I am, in fact, disappointed he’s not as liberal as I thought he would be. I trust climate scientists more than I trust Glenn Beck. Please stop prejudging every person born in Alabama. The cumulative effect is causing the progressive element in my state to give up and/or move.

    3. Alabamans are too independent to accept private donations, but they need a government safety net? This is the same logic that brought us “keep the guvermint out of my medicare.”

    4. It’s just they have made their wishes known with respect to this _specific_ course of action. Hand-outs bad, weaken the recipient.

      And just who is the ‘they’ you refer to? The voters, officials..the individuals (often in blue voting areas in Alabama hardest hit by the storms)

      Should I label all of California as homophobic for majority decision of Prop 8 who made their ‘wishes known’ to prevent same sex marriage?

      Your comments smack of “Fallwellism” saying ‘they deserved it and should suffer”.

  11. The tornadoes hit not only Alabama, but also Tennessee and my home state of Georgia. While I was unaffected, many in my county and neighboring counties suffered the brunt of these storms. Donate as much as you can to help, regardless of how the majority voted. Sad that I even have to make that last statement.

  12. Please save the tribalism; it’s not a red state/blue state kind of thing.

    It’s just they have made their wishes known with respect to this _specific_ course of action. Hand-outs bad, weaken the recipient.

    Above all, do no harm, so can’t have my hand-outs going to those who abhor them. I know they wouldn’t even want to live in a community where others were saved by hand-outs. I respect their desires.

    I also don’t resuscitate those who have filed requests to not be resuscitated.

    1. Please save the tribalism; it’s not a red state/blue state kind of thing.

      How virtuous. You’d never stoop to tribalism, would you? I mean, except for in the rest of your post, where you tell me about the inferior politics of every person in a certain location. (Not your location, because the politics of your location are subtle and diverse.)

  13. First off, thanks to Boing Boing for posting this. I know a lot of people think that Alabama is populated with a lot of trailer-riding rednecks, but this is not the case.

    Second, I had to sit through the storm and following power outage. Hunting for gas and food, scavenging power to keep my cell phone charged, and cycling around to different homes to help was hard. It was rough, but I had to think of it like involuntary camping trip. We did have water, after all.

    However, my situation pales in comparison to some of the people that I know. A couple of my friends’ parents lost their homes. One of my relatives, who lived not 2 miles away from my parents, lost EVERYTHING. He lost his home, business, vehicles, and more. The only things he has is his life and the clothes on his back. Of course he was lucky compared to others.

    I’ve been reading some of the comments on this post, and I would like to say that some of the areas hit have been areas that would normally vote Democrat. Just because the majority of the state tends to vote Republican doesn’t mean that Alabamians don’t want or need federal help. Who knows, depending on how the government handles this disaster it might get some people to change their minds.

    As I write this there are still plenty of people without power. I talked to one of my co-workers this morning who lived only a couple of streets away, and he was still powerless. There are plenty of people still picking up the broken pieces of their lives. Whether you agree with their personal politics or not, these people still need help.

    Sorry for the long, rambling post. I felt like I had to say something.

  14. Hi–Brian Oliu here. Thank you for the repost and the kind comments. All thoughts & help is greatly appreciated.

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