Alabama: To some it’s debris - to others, a source of hidden treasures

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A homeowner does a final cleanup of his yard before the debris is removed. Operation Clean Sweep is helping residents rid their property of the storm debris.
Pratt City, Ala., June 1, 2011 -- A homeowner does a final cleanup of his yard before the debris is removed. Operation Clean Sweep is helping residents rid their property of the storm debris.

Sometimes debris is just debris. But in a disaster it can be a much-needed glimpse of humanity. My first experience with this was after September 11, 2001, where I was a deputy federal coordinating officer at Ground Zero. Facing an unbelievable amount of destruction and loss amongst the twisted steel and collapsed chaos of dust and debris, I would occasionally spot a piece of a desk, a handwritten note or crumpled photograph and find relief in these signs of life.

For the last few weeks, survivors of Alabama’s onslaught of tornadoes have been in the process of putting their lives back together. Cleaning up after something like this is never easy, but we try to retrieve fragments of the past when we can, like pieces to a puzzle, one memory at a time.

FEMA and the State of Alabama are helping residents clear the enormous piles of debris the April 27 tornadoes left behind. The program, called Operation Clean Sweep, provides funding to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, or to the state and local government to hire a private contractor to remove the rubble on private property in the highest impact areas once the owners sign a “right-of-entry” form.

Operation Clean Sweep is underway in designated Alabama communities to clear debris from areas of catastropic damage. FEMA assigned the task to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Tuscaloosa, AL, June 1, 2011 -- Operation Clean Sweep is underway in designated Alabama communities to clear debris from areas of catastropic damage. FEMA assigned the task to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. (© C.J. Hamilton, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers)

At the governor’s request, FEMA has increased its share of the debris removal cost to 90 percent, with the non-federal share at 10 percent. The deadline for the program has also been extended, now ending July 12. And if residents follow guidelines for debris separation, it allows some construction material to be salvaged for reuse or recycling. Recycling ultimately helps to free up landfills and save taxpayer dollars.

Many people who have reached out to help the survivors have started their own type of recycling by setting up websites and drop-off points for priceless mementos – things like first-year baby photos, sports memorabilia and handcrafted Mother’s Day cards. Amazingly, the tornado winds blew personal keepsakes clear across state lines. On one Facebook page a couple was thrilled to be reunited with their wedding photo showing them filling a vase in the sand as part of their ceremony on a beach. They were also able to salvage that glass vase beneath the rubble of their house, “untouched.”

Wedding photo of couple at the beach.
Holt, AL, June 1, 2011 -- A couple finds their wedding picture amongst tornado debris. Many Alabamians across the state are recovering from storms and tornadoes that struck in April 2011. (© Published with permission of Kelli Griffin Hallman)

In another story, Jeff and Paula Baccus of Hackleburg, Ala. say they were lucky in that some of their family treasures were not destroyed, although about 50 massive trees fell on their home. Jeff hid in the hallway with the family’s two dogs as the deafening sound of the wind twisted tree trunks. Paula hugged her 16-year-old son in a neighbor’s basement as the roof blew off and the walls collapsed. As with many survivors, they feel blessed to be alive.

The cleanup process has been a team effort for the Baccus family. A few days after the tornado hit, volunteers came from all over the country to help them begin removing debris. The private sector is also engaged, as U.S. Steel donated equipment to help cut away timber from the house.

As the Baccus family and many others continue to sort through what the tornadoes left behind, I hope they can salvage a few tangible pieces of the past that will offer comfort as they move forward in their recovery.

 

Last Updated: 
06/17/2012 - 12:41
Posted on Mon, 06/06/2011 - 15:01
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