The day after the worst tornado season in recent history, Lane Management LLC personnel arrived in storm-ravaged Tuscaloosa, Ala. to assist the residents of the brand new senior rental community we manage there, Chastain Manor. Unfortunately, the community was a complete loss, but due to the combined efforts of volunteers and company staff, many heavy spirits were lifted to the degree possible in such a disaster, and several treasured possessions were recovered from the midst of the destruction. Very unfortunate was the necessary recovery of two bodies of our residents—victims of this terrible disaster.
Only a very personal experience such as we had as we arrived in Tuscaloosa would allow a true understanding of the intensity and magnitude of the destruction wrought by the storm and the impact it had on the community. Arriving from Atlanta, we had to park in a local church parking lot and walk more than a mile to the property, as officials were letting only official emergency response/rescue vehicles through.
When driving into the area some distance from “ground zero,” the damage did not appear to be that serious, but as we got closer, the community around us began to appear more and more mangled. Some homes and businesses were not even recognizable. Countless trees had fallen on the roofs and were crushing all beneath them. Power lines were down everywhere, and steel was wrapped around poles as if it was as pliable as foil. Many residents could not determine where the roofs of their houses had ended up. The smell of natural gas filled the air. Some people were in their front yards, obviously dazed and trying to determine what to do first to make sense of the jumble of destruction before them.
There were no utilities available anywhere. The hospitals were at maximum capacity, and the shelters were overflowing. It felt as if we had entered a third-world country with no resources except the few items we were able to carry in our backpacks.
Chastain Manor sits at the end of a cul de sac. To get to the property, we had to first walk through the adjacent residential neighborhood. What used to be a well-groomed group of houses in comely yards now looked like an area where a bomb had recently detonated. The first glimpse of the community through the trees revealed the full magnitude of what had occurred, and it seemed unlikely that any of our elderly residents could have made it out of their homes alive. As we approached the community, everyone was silent, coming to the same realization, understanding the gravity of the situation more and more the closer we got.
We immediately began to take action, starting the effort to locate the whereabouts of all of our residents. Luckily, this was a brand-new community, still in the lease-up phase, so we had only 21 occupied apartments. Finding contact information was the immediate challenge. The only thing left of our leasing office was the concrete pad on which it was sitting less than eight hours before we arrived. There were no physical files available. In fact, we could not even locate the filing cabinet. We had very poor cellphone reception, no electricity, no computer or Internet access, and no place where we could efficiently work on this task. Once contact was made with our team in Atlanta, they were able to greatly assist with this process.
Throughout the next two days, we assisted residents and their family members, climbing through rubble where it was safe enough to do so, trying to find family photos, medications, clothing and heirlooms. There were instances where walls, ceilings and debris literally crumbled around us. Without exception everyone was very grateful for our efforts in helping them find the few material items that could be located and salvaged. We spent time calling local hospitals, shelters, law enforcement agencies and Red Cross to try to account for all the residents.
There are many memories of this experience that are impossible to put into words. We witnessed an unbelievable camaraderie and love amongst the people in the Tuscaloosa community. There were private individuals setting up roadside water stations. Neighbors were helping each other move trees. Volunteers had biked in to do whatever they could to help. Everyone was friendly, everyone was loving, and there was nothing anyone had that they were not willing to share—the way humanity should behave each and every day.