Yesterday afternoon, we left Kansas City bound for Alabama. A trip both to visit my husband's family, and to drop off the books we collected as part of the Books for Alabama book drive. Before I forget, many thanks to Cagey for running a book drive of her own to support us, and Rita and Kate and 435 South Magazine and the UPS Store and all the others who brought us books and helped spread the word via Facebook or their own blogs. We were blown away by the response to our little idea to help.
My dining room has for weeks been the main depository of all that we've collected, and my children have enjoyed having their own little library of new and interested books to raid during the process. But yesterday morning, after much packing and repacking and jostling, we managed to get it all into the back of my Explorer.
And so we set out to deliver our goods, and to get a closer look at the damage in Hackleburg. We spent the night in Memphis, and this morning we met a first grade teacher from Hackleburg in a parking lot of a Hardees, and transfered the books to her husband's pickup. And then we followed her down the road into Hackleburg. As we got closer to the town, you could see the trees along the side of the road, bent over, in perfect little rows. The most bizarre thing.
And then we began to notice, wow, those are empty lots, where houses used to be. A driveway, a concrete foundation, and nothing else. No debris, no trees. Just gone.
And then. We arrived at the school. As we pulled in behind Suzanne the teacher and her husband in their truck, I lost my breath. And then I teared up.
As I snapped this picture, Suzanne whispered from behind me, "those are my daughter's handprints."
I can't even explain, and pictures do not adequately show, the total amount of devastation in this little town. It is amazing to me that more lives were not lost. It is completely amazing to me that there were no children in this school, they called school earlier in the day because of the potential these storms showed on the radar. They would not have survived. There is no way.
There are strange juxtopositions. The first thing they dealt with at the school campus was the football field, because the high school seniors wanted to have their graduation at their own school, instead of in some other town, at some other school. I can't blame them, when you're 18 years old, you want normalcy, in whatever way you can get it. (Prom had already taken place, so there were no problems there.) So they cleaned up and sodded the field first thing. Suzanne told me it wasn't until she was at graduation, sitting in the stands, watching these young adults she had taught so many years earlier walk across the stage in their pristine caps and gowns against the backdrop of their broken school, that she cried for the first time. Until then, she'd been in crisis mode, salvaging what she could, helping where she could, not really looking deep into the cracks and broken glass.
She pointed out to us that before the tornado, you couldn't see the schools from the main road, because there was a neighborhood there. Not a house or two, but an entire neighborhood. You couldn't see the water tower from the school parking lot where we were standing, because of the houses and the trees blocking the view.
Here's the other thing that's got the people of Hackleburg worried: The status of Wrangler plant in town that employed hundreds of people from this and other nearby towns, and that may choose not to rebuild.
I have lived in the Midwest most of my life. I've taken cover many times when the sirens have gone off. I've never lived through something like this. I've never before seen this kind of devastation up close.
But these people are strong. They are busy. They are hopeful. And they are recovering.
Drew commented this afternoon about how once the tornado devastation in Joplin happened, everybody stopped talking about Alabama. And I know Joplin was so much worse, so many more dead and injured, so many more families displaced, and so much more to do. It's hard to imagine. Seeing this up close helps you start to imagine. And we told him, the major news networks stopped talking about it, but the local people didn't forget. And we didn't forget. Our little book drive will go a long way toward helping them re-establish a little normalcy for these kids, books they can check out, read, and learn. Temporary trailers and buildings started arriving today, and the bulldozers come in next week to start leveling out the broken brick structures. School will start on schedule, mid-August.
There's hope in Hackleburg. It's a new day.