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Responders remember tragedy, devastation

Published 12:53am Friday, April 27, 2012

It was one year ago today when blustering tornadoes ripped through northern Alabama, causing millions worth of damage and killing hundreds in Tuscaloosa alone. The relief efforts to rebuild included local and state volunteers ranging from students to officials. Officials from The Salvation Army, United Way of Selma-Dallas County and the Dallas County Emergency Management Agency, remember a moment in history that is still fresh and vivid.

EMA director Rhonda Abbott said after the tornadoes struck on that Wednesday, she got the call that Friday.

“I was there for a week helping out in the emergency operation system,” Abbott said, recalling the incident. “It was pretty overwhelming. It was really hard to go in and operate. It was a tremendous learning opportunity; it was a tremendous experience that I hope no one has to go through again.”

Upon entering the scene, Abbott said a lot of the major agencies had been wiped out by the storm.

“The emergency operation system was completely destroyed — everything was gone, we had to start from scratch,” Abbott said. “Hats off to Tuscaloosa because they pulled together as a city, county and town. They pulled themselves together and took giant steps … into putting things in place. It was tremendous to be able to see that.”

United Way executive director Jeff Cothran remembers sending the “Doc in a Bus” to aid residents in Hackleburg, a place also completely devastated by the tornadoes.

“It was very much a statewide effort — United Ways and our partner agencies across Alabama helped and have sprung into action,” Cothran said. “The state responded so well; I was so proud of the first responders.”

Recovery, Cothran said, has been an ongoing project for the past year.

“It (Tuscaloosa) can’t just be rebuilt in a month’s time or in a year’s time,” Cothran said. “Moving forward, you want to make everybody as whole as you can, especially after something like this; slowly but surely, everything is moving along.”

Maj. Eric Roberts of The Salvation Army said he was already prepared to go to Tuscaloosa.

“About 5 p.m., I was told I needed to get there as soon as possible,” Roberts said. “Like most disasters I’ve dealt with, with The Salvation Army, I was already on call, it was just a matter of getting things and volunteers together and on the road … I jumped right in.”

Roberts, who served as finance officer, said his duty was to rescue an officer who had been trapped inside the agency’s shelter.

“I went to rescue her from the shelter and to continue with the work of the disaster team,” Roberts said.

Roberts, Abbott and Cothran felt the collaborative efforts of citizens from Dallas County and surrounding areas were unmatched. They’re optimistic about the future.

“It was really awesome,” Roberts said of the efforts. “I was awestruck by the amount of people who came forward to volunteer. You saw all kinds of people from all walks of life come forward — college students, volunteers passing out water or helping wherever they could.”

Cothran said the people of Dallas County continue to move altruistically.

“We’re not alone in this state,” Cothran said. “A great amount of people from the local and state level helped each other and came together (that day). It was wonderful to see.”

Abbott agrees.

“Dallas County has some of the best supporters and first responders,” Abbott said. “I feel their support everyday and without them, I couldn’t do my job.”

The tornado disasters last April, Cothran said, urges the public to be prepared.

“Every time there’s a disaster, there’s a lesson,” Cothran said. “We can glean things that were done right, done wrong and when it (disaster) happens, we’ll be better prepared.”

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