Tornado survivor wants a job, more days

By Ashanka Kumari

TUSCALOOA, Ala. – For most of her life, she worked. She worked to support her seven children alone after her marriage dissolved 32 years ago. She worked at a Chevron gas station in Tuscaloosa. She worked for the housing department at the University of Alabama. She even worked at J.D.’s Food Mart, a deli-like convenience store near campus. Work kept her happy and supported her family. But four years ago, she lost her right leg and her job.

“I worked until my leg got amputated,” said Ethel Witherspoon, 73. “Since my leg got amputated, I just sit around on my front porch.”

A native of Cullman, Witherspoon said the worst experience she can remember was losing her leg, even among other bad life experiences.

On April 27, 2011, Witherspoon experienced more loss. Her neighborhood, Rosedale Court, was one of the most devastated and hardest-hit areas of the tornado that ravaged the city.

“I looked out my front porch and everything was gone in front of me,” she said.  “I looked out my front door and everything across in front of me was flat like a book.” 

The back of Witherspoon’s house was where the tornado hit her worst.

“It affected my bedroom and kitchen,” she said. “It hit me worst on the back, and I lost a lot of linens and stuff like that.”

Although she did not lose irreplaceable items or any friends or family members to the storm, Witherspoon said the things she did lose were still important.

“I didn’t lose none of my pictures,” she said. “I did lose pots and pans and dishes and stuff of that nature. That stuff was precious because it was mine.”

After the tornado, Witherspoon went with her daughter to nearby Taylorville, where she stayed in her daughter’s home.

“They told me I couldn’t stay in my apartment [in Rosedale] because it was raining through it,” she said. “My daughter came and got me and I stayed with her until they called me and told me they had an apartment for me.”

Two months after the tornado, people from the Rosedale community called Witherspoon and transferred her back to McKenzie Court, an apartment complex she had lived in before moving to Rosedale.

“They had built McKenzie Court before the tornado,” Witherspoon said. “I had used to live over here before they tore it down and remodeled it. They transferred us to Rosedale when they tore [McKenzie Court] to the ground and built it back up.”

McKenzie Court is the largest and second oldest public housing development in Tuscaloosa and was built in 1952 for African-Americans as a sister development to the Rosedale Apartments, which were originally built for the city’s white population, according to the Tuscaloosa Housing Authority.  McKenzie Court was rebuilt with money from a Hope VI grant, a federal program designed to improve blighted public housing. Construction finished in 2010.

Witherspoon said she lived in the Rosedale community for nearly a dozen years and occasionally wants the small elements of the community to which she had grown accustomed.

“I can’t name one particular thing, but you know how you miss things that was that are not anymore; I miss those,” she said. “I miss a lot of people that were around me. People I saw every day, I miss seeing them. Some people are in different places now, and I don’t know what happened to most of them.”

Witherspoon said she has worked to replace the things she lost in the tornado.

“Some of this stuff was donated,” she said. “I’m paying on my couch right now. The pots and pans, I found them at the Goodwill and a thrift store. I found a lot of good stuff there. FEMA gave me $1,300, and I went to the Goodwill and found lots of stuff that could be used.”

FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, was among the many government groups, non-profit organizations, churches, businesses and people who are helping Tuscaloosa recover from the tornado, which leveled thousands of buildings and killed more than 50 people.

Along with money from FEMA, Witherspoon has received supplies and food from Wings of Grace, a disaster-relief program created the day after the 2011 tornado by the Forest Lake Baptist Church in Tuscaloosa. The church’s building, like dozens of surrounding houses and businesses, took a direct hit from the tornado.

Terri Hibbard, director of Wings of Grace, said FEMA came to Tuscaloosa and helped explain what was needed to do to help citizens cope after the storm. The Wings of Grace program was developed to provide food, clothing, toiletries, linens and other items to those affected by the tornado.

“We have served over 8,700 individual people who have registered with us since the storm,” Hibbard said. “Only one person represents each family, and most families have three to five people in their households. They have to have proof of papers that they had storm damage and be registered with FEMA, have a photo ID, driver’s license and other related information.”

Wings of Grace began with no money but began the service after state and Tuscaloosa-are groups began donating to the church, Hibbard said.

“The money came from outside sources such as churches and businesses in and outside of the state of Alabama,” she said.

The program works with volunteers from eight to nine other churches and has about 35 regular volunteers.

“People just came from everywhere ready to work or give supplies to us and we originally operated off that funding,” she said. “Now, a year and a half later, there have been a lot less monetary donations and supplies. We’ve had to go to local organizations and ask for supplies. Food and clothing are still our biggest needs right now.”

Forest Lake Baptist Church is the largest ministry that continues to provide this service and has expanded its disaster-relief efforts worldwide, Hibbard said.

“We pre-package food and supplies and either the person who needs the supplies, a family member or a case worker comes and gets the supplies on a weekly basis,” she said. “We’re not only working as a church-based or community-based group. We are working nationally and globally. We provide shipments to Africa and Lebanon for missionaries who take food and supplies with them. We’ve learned as we’ve worked.”

Along with Witherspoon, Hibbard said Wings of Grace assists about 200 to 250 people each week by providing them with food and supplies.

“A lot of [the people we assist] are disabled and may never be able to move from where they are,” she said. “We have watched a lot of them grow and get new jobs.”

Witherspoon said she wants to work again but is not sure she can.

“Sitting around home gets to me,” she said. “It bothers me. If I could just find two or three days doing work, I would be happier. My biggest fear is that I may not be able to work no more, and that’s what I really want to do.”

Witherspoon said she wishes she had more to keep her busy.

“I watch TV a while and then go sit out there on that porch,” she said. “I go across down to the mailbox and back and that’s about it. That’s my daily routine.”

Although she receives $604 a month in disability checks, Witherspoon said she has to budget her utilities.

“Yeah, I get by,” Witherspoon said. “I only pay $49 a month for rent, and my light bill and gas are on budget and my water.”

Witherspoon said she continues to ask for new items to replace the kitchenware she lost in the storm but has not been successful.

“I’ve been asking the Salvation Army,” she said. “I’ve been asking them for pots and pans since the tornado happened and every time I ask them, they say they don’t have any in. I haven’t been able to get none from them. I’ve asked them four or five times for the same things, pots and pans and some dishes.”

Debra Nelson-Gardell, associate professor in the UA School of Social Work, said if a person has faced a significant loss before a tornado, many elements can affect their recovery and adjustment process. In Witherspoon’s case, losing her leg a few years before the storm could make it more difficult to cope with a second loss.

“Past losses can make future losses more difficult to overcome, but they might also make future losses easier to overcome,” she said. “It all depends on the person. Humans are very complex and complicated and not easy to explain.”

Before storm, Witherspoon said her life was not as bad as it could have been.

“Life was alright [before the tornado],” she said. “I miss my old, my Rosedale, but I’m thankful to God that I have a roof over my head. I feel good about living here, though.”

Witherspoon said she still does all of her household work and lives from day to day.

“I can do everything,” she said. “If I could do anything right now, I’d be working, but even on the rough days, every day is my best experience. I have to thank the Lord for even being here. I don’t like to complain.

“Instead of using that breath to complain, I use it to say, ‘Thank you, Jesus.’ I just take life day after day and hope to wake up in the morning and see another one.”