RAINSVILLE, Ala.—For years, Anthony Thompson made monthly payments on the mobile home where he and his three children lived, counting down the days until he sent in the final one in January.
Four months later, their home and belongings are scattered across acres of fields and twisted among power lines and trees in DeKalb County.
Thompson had no insurance and the family — a 9-year-old daughter and 8-year-old twin sons — temporarily is living in an uncle’s rental home.
But a week after an EF4 tornado left 33 miles of devastation across the North Alabama county and killed 34 people, Thompson says his focus is not on his loss. It is on paying back the generosity and boundless help from his community.
“It’s overwhelming,” Thompson said Thursday, his voice breaking as he wiped away tears, a blue tarp nearby covering his few salvaged possessions. “I want to give back what they’ve given me. I want to give so much more.”
“Overwhelming” was the word many DeKalb County residents used Thursday, a week after so many of their own were killed and hundreds more left homeless. The hurt and devastation isn’t gone — there are funerals held every day, and the battered countryside is a stark reminder of how much they have lost.
A list of those killed has not been released, and there may not be a final count. But the volunteers and supplies pouring in from around the nation are helping to heal the hurt, residents say.
“It’s like the loaves and fishes — it keeps multiplying and multiplying. You ask for 1,000 and they send you 2,000. It makes you sit down and cry,” said Mitchell Dendy, chief administrator of the DeKalb County Jail, who is managing the central distribution center in Rainsville.
All day Thursday, supplies kept coming in to the Orchard Lanes bowling alley that’s now a warehouse and shopping center. The warehouse has been filled and emptied at least twice, DeKalb Sheriff Jimmy Harris said.
Local residents carried in a bag of diapers and cans of soups, corn and beans. Tractor-trailers from Arizona, Colorado and Wisconsin are on the way, due to arrive sometime in the night. The town of Enterprise, Ala., has adopted Rainsville, and city leaders have brought in supplies, Dendy said.
Chris Townsend, from Wrightsville, Ga., stands to one side, waiting for his tractor-trailer to be unloaded. A manager at Bell-view Window and Door, he says the company is just passing on what other people have given.
One man, whose wife was killed in the storm, brought in bags of supplies. Another man carried 500 one-dollar bills wadded in his hand for someone who needed it more.
Several days ago, Dendy said, he took meals to a man who had lost his home and was digging in the rubble. When Dendy tried to offer him food the man declined, saying his neighbor down the street needed it worse than he did.
“They don’t have anything left, but they want someone else who has less to have it,” Dendy said. “Now that’s love.”
Almost every church and thrift store has signs out advertising free clothes. Many of the churches cook thousands of meals a day and distribute them to weary residents digging through heaps of rubble.
The distribution center has had so many supplies come in, workers are loading trucks to head out to churches in areas that have not received as much in Alabama and Georgia.
In northern areas of the county, such as Ider and Sylvania, power lines still drape across the roads like black snakes. Debris crowds the edges of twisting country roads that crews work quickly to clear.
The fire station in Rainsville doubles as the volunteer command center, funneling hundreds of volunteers equipped with chain saws to the neediest areas.
A map of DeKalb County on the table is covered in yellow sticky notes showing the location of each group of volunteers.
Wade Hill, a commander with the sheriff's department, said his goal is to get as many volunteers on the ground this weekend as possible, despite frustrations with insurance agencies asking people to wait on cleaning up.
“We have all these volunteers now,” he said. “Everything we can do helps in their healing process.”
And there are so many places that need volunteers.
North of Rainsville near the outskirts of Sylvania, Harold and Betty Smith sit on lawn chairs amidst the rubble that once was their home. They eat scrambled eggs and oatmeal dropped off by a church in Fort Payne before getting back to the arduous task of sorting, salvaging and discarding.
Harold, 68, dismisses the mess and moves on to what he considers more important — the community.
“This is the most awesome outpouring of compassion that I have ever seen,” he said. His straw hat shades his weathered face, tanned by years of sun on the farm where his family has lived for more than 100 years.
“Never before have people tried to help like this,” he added. “I want everyone to know we gratefully accept and offer my very sincere thanks.”
Betty, 65, eats quickly and goes back to work, picking up trash and throwing it into a bin.
It’s hard to see all they’ve ever worked for blown away, she admits. But she quickly adds that they are lucky — they have insurance.
“There’s other people that need help worse,” she said. She never wavers at the thought of the acres of land trashed with debris and trees. “We have our lives, and that is all that matters. I am at peace with all of it being gone.”
Minutes after the Smiths eat, a sheriff’s deputy pulls up with a crew of volunteers from Wisconsin.
The 18 firefighters from the Osseo Fire District in Osseo, Wis., spread like worker ants across the property. Two cut up a tree, three sort through piles of lumber that may be salvageable and others pile debris.
The group, hauling trailers loaded with gas, chainsaws and other supplies, arrived in Rainsville on Wednesday. Chief Nels Gunderson said several of his firefighters had cousins or other relatives killed in Rainsville.
“We had an emergency meeting on Sunday, and it went from there,” Gunderson said. “We’re just trying to make a difference.”
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, ...