TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — In the days following the April 27 tornado, the Salvation Army has been faced with challenges unusual for a relief organization.
After the building on Greensboro Avenue was leveled, employees and volunteers became storm victims themselves. Despite the setback of losing the building and everything in it, the organization has remained focused on helping disaster victims in need. Workers and volunteers have served more than 30,000 hot meals at mobile canteens and have provided water and snacks to emergency personnel and construction crews.
On Friday morning, volunteers were moving items from a warehouse to the former Goody's store in McFarland Mall. The location will serve as a center where victims can receive assistance beginning today.
Marla Moss was helping load food into the old store Friday. She was the head cook at the local Salvation Army, but has been serving in many roles since the tornado.
She had been busy on April 27, making sandwiches to send to victims of the morning tornados that struck the Coaling and Berry areas. When the sirens for the EF-4 tornado began to sound at about 4:30 p.m., the 24 clients, 10 staff members and five volunteers sought shelter in the dining room and began dinner. Moss walked outside to take a look at the weather.
"I saw a cluster of birds flying erratically like bees swarming," she said. "I realized later that it was like they were caught in a whirlwind."
A few minutes later, Moss saw the tornado heading straight for the building from the west.
"I ran inside and told everyone to get against the wall and cover their faces. All of the glass started breaking and the ceiling started vibrating. No one was hurt; the only injuries were from people hurting their knees as they dove to the floor."
In minutes, the tornado had passed. The only room left standing was the dining room where everyone had taken shelter.
Staff and volunteers immediately began taking care of people. Injured victims began making their way toward the Salvation Army building, where the staff and first responders treated their wounds.
"Since that first day — since five minutes after the disaster happened — I haven't slowed down," said Moss, who let her vehicle insurance lapse while she was unemployed and only bringing in a weekly $60 unemployment check. Her car was destroyed.
Steven Pousinho, the Corps assistant, was driving back from Berry when the tornado hit.
"People were text messaging us asking if we were OK. We drove in and downtown looked perfectly fine. Then we came up on the road blocks, backed-up traffic and saw that there were trees and power lines down everywhere," he said.
He came from Portugal to work for the Salvation Army here two years ago and was living in a suite in the Salvation Army headquarters. He was able to salvage a few items of clothing and some sentimental items, but lost everything else.
"I've been working so much I haven't been able to really think about what I've lost," he said.
Volunteers and people providing donations have helped the organization continue to operate.
"The community has been great and helped so much," Pousinho said.
The organization has sent in volunteers from across the country to assist the workers here.
"We're all here for the same purpose — to help people who are having a bad run of luck find a little help and hope to move on," said Laine Hendricks, a public information officer who works out of San Francisco.
Major Steve Morris, incident commander for The Salvation Army Emergency Disaster Services operations in Tuscaloosa, said that workers were preparing to handle case management for victims at the McFarland Mall location.
"We'll have people on staff here to talk with people as well, to just be a listening ear and provide one on one care as much as people will allow," he said.
The organization has begun discussions, but made no firm plans about whether to rebuild in the same location. But Morris and other staff and volunteers said losing their buildings won't deter them from providing disaster relief to storm victims as they work to get back on their feet as well.
"Our commitment is to continue to provide that for the community and we hope people see value in that," Morris said. "We've been here over 101 years, and we're not going anywhere."