Finding 'a New Normal' After a Tornado

By Laura Reinhardt / © World Vision

Life has been full of changes for Tim and Rebecca Acreys since spring 2011. Rebecca found out she was pregnant with their second child on April 25. Two days later, a tornado struck their valley in Etowah County, destroying the family's mobile home.

Concrete board—also called cement siding—donated by World Vision, is ready to go on the Acrey's new house

The family, including 2½ -year-old Audrey, tried to flee the tornado in a pickup truck. The tornado cut off their escape route, so they scurried into a ditch in a horse pasture.

Rebecca, 29, heard a loud whooshing sound as the tornado rushed past them. "Like if you took a real high-pressure tire and stuck a knife in it and let the air out of it really fast," she said. She saw the dark funnel cloud with bits of white—pieces of her neighbor's house--at the edges.

Though scared as the storm crossed a mountain, Rebecca also felt the Lord's presence. "We kind of had our peace with God and were ready to do whatever the plan was. I guess the plan wasn't for it to end that day," she recalled with a laugh.

Record-Breaking Storms

The Red Cross reported that tornadoes left nearly 14,000 homes uninhabitable in Alabama that day, with 7,807 destroyed and 5,817 suffering major damage.

The Alabama tornadoes were part of what the National Climatic Data Center (NCDC) called the "Super Outbreak." Between April 25 and April 30, a total of 334 tornadoes touched down in 21 states from Texas to New York, but mostly in the Southeast. The NCDC estimated that the Super Outbreak caused at least $5.5 billion in damages.

No Insurance

Nearly a quarter of Etowah County's population lived in mobile homes before the tornado, and 27 percent of homeowners in the area are uninsured, said Susan Carter of the United Way.

She often heard residents remarking that "I had to let my insurance lapse because I had a medical bill to pay" or "I just couldn't afford to keep it." Those people already were on the edge or at risk, Carter said. They hoped disasters, economic and otherwise, would pass them by.

Rebecca and Tim didn't have homeowner's insurance. The tornado didn't pass them by.

Rebecca Acrey, 29, stands next to the bathtub her family received from World Vision.

'Like Answered Prayer'

Fortunately, Rebecca and Tim made contact with Susan and her United Way colleague, Becky Ellis, who oversees the donation management center for Etowah County. Becky and Susan work with partner organizations procuring items for disaster response—both for immediate needs and the long-term recovery—and connected with Phyllis Freeman, World Vision's national domestic disaster director.

"We were kind of thunderstuck," Susan said. "She was like answered prayer."

World Vision donated concrete siding, roof shingles, and a bathtub to the Acrey family.

While the Acreys used a disaster-relief grant from FEMA wisely, Susan said, the couple could not afford all the materials to build a new home. Organizations like World Vision enable tornado survivors to stretch their money as far as they can.

Rebecca Acrey with her daughter Audrey in front of their new home that's in the process of being built. The family's mobile home was destroyed by the April 27 tornado.

Without such assistance, the Acreys new home might not be rebuilt for more than a year. Now Rebecca hopes her family can move in before their baby boy arrives in December.

For families whose lives were devastated, the donations "give them hope that people out there care. They care, not only en masse, but 'they care for me,' " Becky said.

More than 800 children were served on the Holt Day of Caring. Families started by receiving age-appropriate toys and games at the first tent for their children, then moved to another tent to pick out canvas shoes.

Many of the children lingered under the First Book tent. One little boy sat down and started reading his book, refusing to heed his mother's pleas to continue on. At the last tent, each child received a backpack filled with school supplies and a handwritten note by the volunteer who packed it.

One note addressed the trauma faced by each of the families: "Friend, I can only imagine what these last days have been like for you. Please know that you are all in our thoughts and in our prayers."

Restoration Under Way

Despite having to start over, Rebecca feels blessed. Her family survived the storm unscathed. Their unborn son is healthy. They are on track to be in their new home before he makes his entrance into the world. But across the United States, Rebecca said, "There's still a lot of people that need a lot more help."

With thousands of homes still needing to be rebuilt or repaired, it will take years to fully restore the community. World Vision plans to remain in Alabama throughout the restoration process, providing building materials, school supplies, and basic family needs. Continued disaster relief funding enables World Vision to offer help and hope to those affected by disaster.

Becky said donations "critical to the healing for a family, to helping them realize that a new normal can be found."