EDITOR'S NOTE: The tornadoes brought many people to a crossroads where they had to face questions about life and self, the future and sometimes the past.
IDER, Ala. — Valley Head. Mentone. Henegar. Ider. Shiloh. The names march north on the DeKalb County map, up and down the hills of the small communities.
A year ago, they were just typical towns in rural America. Neighbors rarely talked to each other, mostly casting a nod or throwing a wave as they met driving the crisscrossed roads.
People took jobs in sock factories. Got laid off. Sent their kids off to college. But the tight weave of the old rural neighborhoods was gone.
Until a year ago, when an EF5 whirlwind ripped out the heart of every community, killing their brothers and mothers and leaving them homeless. They could have struggled to survive, drifted off to places where the devil wind couldn't reach them.
Instead, they reached out to each other.
"This community will never be like it was in its beauty, but in closeness it has gone back to like it was years ago," said Jason Heard, captain of the Ider Rescue Squad. "This could have been worse than Katrina if the community hadn't responded the way it did. It wasn't about self, it was about 'who could I help?'"
The Ider Rescue Squad was the hub of activity after the tornado, when the entire area was left without power for more than a week. The squad moved the trucks out of the bays and began cooking food in the small staff kitchen, using a backup generator. At first, they used food they had bought for a fish fry fundraiser, but then word got out in the community and supplies began flooding in.
One man dropped off a stainless steel gas grill. "It's yours," he said before driving off.
Someone else heard they needed food and brought a refrigerated truck with 2,500 pounds of frozen McDonald's food. The local grocery store emptied its shelves. People brought food from their freezers before it thawed during the power outage.
The rescue squad cooked three meals a day, often feeding up to 1,800 people. For many, it was the only place they could get food.
And as the tractor trailer loads of supplies -- diapers, clothes and furniture -- arrived, they organized a distribution center.
By this time, the network had extended far beyond Ider as volunteers from various fire departments and from the community pitched in.
Dave and Bonnie Samples and their two teenaged children were some of the local volunteers. They had minor damage at their home, but no power. The second day after the storm, they heard about the rescue squad and went to get a meal.
And they stayed.
"They were serving so many people, it didn't feel right to just sit there, so we started helping," Dave Samples said. "It was one of the best things I've done in my life."
A year later, life has returned to a semblance of normal in the small communities, but the squad still cooks for volunteers helping in the rebuilding effort. They are putting in a commercial kitchen -- just in case.
They greet their neighbors by name. They call to check on each other, to chat.
It's a family, Heard says.
No, they're closer even than that, Samples corrects him.
Mariann Martin covers healthcare in Chattanooga and the surrounding region. She joined the Times Free Press in February 2011, after covering crime and courts for the Jackson (Tenn.) Sun for two years. Mariann was born in Indiana, but grew up in Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Belize. She graduated from Union University in 2005 with degrees in English and history and has master’s degrees in international relations and history from the University of Toronto. While attending Union, ...