Looking for Calm…

After The Storm

written by Tom Gordon  portraits by Beau gustafson

Leigh Ann Motley is flanked by parents, Joe Harold and Betty Sue Motley.

To this day, some of Leigh Ann Motley’s friends still haven’t erased her home phone number from their contact lists. That’s understandable, since her house had the same number, for the same address in Pleasant Grove, for 25 years.

The tornado the afternoon of April 27, 2011, changed all that. Gravel, shards of broken brick and wood and unrecognizable debris now stand in place of the split-level brick and frame house that Motley’s parents, Joe Harold and Betty Sue, bought after it was built along  12th Street, in the Pleasant Acres subdivision, in 1986.

Leigh Ann, her father and mother, their two black labs, Baby and Chloe, and their parrot, Booboo, all survived the twister — one of 62 to hit the state that day — that tore through their flat, plain-like neighborhood, wrecked the homes and bodies of some of their neighbors and killed a woman who had sought shelter in a house about a block to the west. They now live in a hilly Hoover subdivision known as Russet Woods, but in many ways, the storm haunts their lives and those of their neighbors, much as its passage has left a haunted look to their 12th Street community that only decades will erase.

“It’s still running around in the mind,” says one of the Motleys’ longtime 12th Street neighbors and friends, Mary Chasteen. “It’s like there’s no place to put it and forget it.”

“I was in the Army and stationed in Okinawa, and we had a typhoon hit Okinawa,” says Joe Harold Motley, 76, a retired AT&T technician. “It had 200-mile-an-hour winds and it wasn’t near as bad as this.”

Motley made the remark late on the morning of March 1, a day that many Alabamians were on edge because weather forecasters had been saying it would bring storms that could produce tornadoes across much of the state. Betty Sue Motley, 73, was one of them, noting that the day’s warm temperatures, gusting winds, streaming clouds and peek-a-boo sunshine were the same things she noticed for much of April 27. The couple already had taken precautions on this day. Bottled water, a phone book, dog leashes and flashlights were in the family’s designated safe area in the basement. So was Booboo, who survived the April storm, although it toppled his rolling cage in the kitchen. Toward midday, the couple got an ominous indication that they might have to join him later on.

It came in a phone call from Leigh Ann. The oldest of two Motley children, she was on the road to the North Carolina mountains where she and some friends planned to celebrate her 46th birthday, but she had been monitoring weather developments on her iPhone, and someone had just called her and told her that the Huntsville area had been hit. Joe Harold turned on the living room flat screen, and he and his wife watched footage of damaged buildings and a graphic of the cold front pushing a line of storms that would soon be entering the Birmingham area. As the storms developed, Chloe and Baby would start getting antsy, and if thunder and lightning started, they’d be looking for a hiding place. They have been that way ever since April 27.

Nearly 250 Alabamians were killed outright in the April 27 tornadic onslaught or died later from injuries suffered that day. Many more were injured or lost the important props that had sustained their lives — the companionship of a loved one, or the home which they had furnished, in which they had raised their families and where they hoped to quietly spend their last years.  While many rebuilt in the same spot, others chose, for various reasons, to relocate. After emerging from the wreckage of the walk-in closet in which they and their labs had ridden out the storm, seeing the bombed-out look of the houses on either side of theirs, the house across the street wrecked and picked up and moved by the storm to the edge of a curb, people staggering about like zombies and dogs running loose and licking the faces of the prostrate injured, the Motleys saw virtually no chance that they would re-establish themselves along 12th Street. They weren’t alone.

“Nobody was going to go back,” Leigh Ann says. “That was the sentiment in the aftermath… but it changed.”

After a few months in a Shelby County condominium, the Motleys bought the house in Hoover and moved in last July. Betty Sue Motley now wishes they hadn’t.

Created with Admarket’s flickrSLiDR.

“I do not like where I am now,” she says as she sits across from her husband in the living room of their Strawberry Lane home. “Well, for one thing, it’s hills, hills, hills. It’s people everywhere. If we had a tornado today, it looks like everybody’s house would come down this hill on top of us … I want to come home, I want to go home, but home’s not there.”

Perhaps because they lost so much in the storm, and perhaps because Joe Harold and Betty Sue have not felt energized enough to put their mark on it, the new home feels somewhat empty and incomplete, its furnishings more like fillers of floor space than comfort-creating objects in decorative sync with each other.

On a broader scale, 12th Street feels partially formed, incomplete. It’s easy to compare it to a war zone in which the volleys from opposing cannons destroyed most of the trees and turned the ones still standing into twisted, bent, charred hulks. Or liken its once solid community of homes to a mouth with a number of noticeably missing teeth. And when those teeth were taken away, lost also were decorations and costumes that residents had used for years to make the street a popular Halloween haunt for children.

There are signs of renewal here and there. Buddy and Mary Chasteen, who had lived on the street since 1979, weren’t going to come back after their house was hit and Buddy was carried out of the wreckage with a crushed foot, a broken arm and broken fingers. But now they have nearly finished rebuilding their home and have equipped it with a poured-concrete safe room with a steel door. And Robert Coffman, who sustained a broken leg when his house across the street was hit, picked up and deposited at the edge of the curb, is back in the rebuilt house with his family. That home also now has a safe room.

But Coffman’s 19-year-old son Wesley, standing near the lot next door to the Chasteens’ home where the Motleys used to live and the empty space next to the Motley lot where the Brownings used to live, feels the neighborhood has lost human assets that can’t easily be replaced.

“It’s sad,” he says. “Nobody’s here.”

As they look around the neighborhood, the Coffmans, Chasteens and others who have chosen to stay on 12th Street will have daily reminders of what happened on a terrible April 2011 afternoon. Some, like Buddy Chasteen, will carry scars or feel periodic aches from the injuries that they sustained in the storm. But no one who lived through it, even if they escaped injury and relocated to a site far from any storm damage, will ever be the same.

Just ask Leigh Ann  Motley.

“I’m terrified of the (tornado) season coming up,” she says while seated in a board room near her office at Lewis Communications, where she is a production director. “It’s very scary that it could happen again.”

“I don’t think she’s gotten over the stress yet,” her mother says.

Periodically, Leigh Ann has been seeing a counselor. Though grateful to have her life, her job, a home, and most important, her family and her friends, she still has “anxiety every day about what happened.”

“It leaves you with a feeling of chaos,” she wrote in an email. “Kind of like the house being in pieces and just thrown around, you feel the same way inside. Nothing is in its place anymore, including us. It’s left me getting startled at loud  noises in general, storms and just an unsettled feeling that something bad is going to happen.”

Leigh Ann said she does not remember a lot from the weeks that followed the storm’s passage. But in conversation, she can recall a lot of detail, as though she has an aviary full of memory birds eager to roost: Taking shelter with her parents and the dogs in a walk-in closet in the center of the house and hearing a loud sucking sound; watching her father kneel on her mother  and hold onto the closet door after the storm had nearly pulled it loose from its hinges; checking on the Chasteens afterward, then getting tools so some men could cut off the leaking gas in the rubble of the Chasteen home; finding herself barefoot after emerging from the walk-in closet and donning some mismatched flip-flops; coming back to the house the following morning with her uncle Wayne and hearing loud squawks that told her Booboo was still alive and had recognized her voice; stopping a Salvation Army truck and asking its occupants for food; coming back to the house another time and finding, still wrapped and undamaged, the large, framed, black-and-white wedding photograph of her parents that she and her brother Steven had given them the weekend before the storm, when they had celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary. But another memento from that weekend is still missing: her mother’s wedding band. Joe Harold had given it again to Betty Sue after a jeweler had made it adjustable to accommodate her arthritic ring finger. She wears another adjustable ring now.

Meanwhile, the wedding photograph now hangs in the hallway of the Hoover home, even though Betty Sue wishes it were hanging at 1238 12th Street, Pleasant Grove.

“I’m not happy,” she says. “Other than that, I think I’m lucky to be alive.”

A perfect storm. A terribly apt way to describe the speed, power and death-producing paths of the tornadoes that raged across Alabama on April 27.

Clint De Shazo

Clint DeShazo uses the words in a more hopeful fashion — to describe how people with the contacts and skill sets found each other and the resources to respond to the disaster. He was one of them. But as he and others responded, again and again, to the widespread needs for food, clothing, water, chain saws and medical attention, DeShazo was made aware of another need that could go unmet for days, weeks and months to come.

He started thinking about it a few days after the storms, after he had been out in Pleasant Grove doing gopher work for a medical mission mounted by members of the Lemak Sports Medicine team.

While there, he met a woman with her arm in a sling, and her husband, who had some surgical staples in his head. They showed him photos of what the tornado had done to their home. It reminded him of what he had seen first-hand in the aftermath of April 27 when he and some friends had come out several times to drop off canned food, gasoline, nutrition bars and bottled water. But then the couple started talking about their children, who were too young to fully comprehend what had happened and how it was going to affect their lives. They told him about their daughter’s favorite doll, which had been sliced in half.

At that point, DeShazo could not help but think, “What if it was her birthday tomorrow or today?”

And what if her family was in no position, financially or emotionally, to meaningfully celebrate it?

That night, at dinner with his fiancee and now wife, Sami, he talked about the encounter and the questions it had fastened like staples in his mind, and he wasn’t going to remove those staples until he had figured out an answer.

Clint with Brayden Winters of Webster’s Chapel, whose third birthday party was furnished by Alabama’s Lost Birthdays. His mother was injured on April 27 and, because of her injuries, had cancelled his party

By mid-May, the 31-year-old realtor had created Alabama’s Lost Birthdays.

As it states on its Facebook page, the  nonprofit enterprise is giving birthdays “back to the kids age 12 and under who have lost everything in Alabama’s tornadoes.” Over the past year, it has enabled about 80 children to have birthday parties with cakes, gifts and other goodies that their families would not otherwise have been able to provide.

DeShazo says the parties were about much more than gifts and cakes with gooey icing.

“I would say that the common element in giving the birthdays back was empowering the children to have hope,” he said in a recent email. “The materialistic value of the items we supplied are probably lost now, but my hope is that the impact we gave them is memorable and gives them hope in humanity.”

Certainly the response the Lost Birthdays project has received — with people not just from Alabama but from around the country sending money or gifts, or underwriting entire parties — has added to the hope that DeShazo already harbored for the human condition. His feeling already

Justice Rupley and his sister Sky at their November birthday party in Phil Campbell with their mother Jennifer. Justice and Sky lost their father to a heart attack about two weeks before one of the April tornadoes injured their mother and destroyed their car, their home and a produce stand that helped feed the family. Clint says the kids and their mom were in their SUV at the time of the storm, and the storm picked up the vehicle, spun it around and slammed it to the ground.

had been fueled by the responses of friends, associates, relief organizations and local businesses to an effort he and others undertook to bring fuel, food, tools and other relief supplies  to Pleasant Grove and other hard-hit communities, like Ider in DeKalb County, Sawyerville in Hale County, Shoal Creek in St. Clair and Webster’s Chapel in Calhoun. And in those communities, he was heartened yet again by the heroic efforts he saw by local residents to help others heal, repair and rebuild.

Recently recalling some of the things he saw and some of the hard-working, tireless people he met, the Briarwood Christian School graduate and former Auburn University swimmer pushed away talk of praise for him like it was a cup of curdled milk. Talking of Ider, where he and other volunteers had brought badly needed chain saws to weary firefighters, he says, “I wasn’t pulling out dead bodies for two days by myself. I was just giving them the tools that they needed to get the job done. I saw a need and was able to meet it.”

If there is a label that DeShazo will willingly apply to himself, it is “networker.”

“He knows everybody,” says his wife, whom he married on Dec. 31. “I’m not kidding you.”

Networking comes in handy in real estate sales, and DeShazo is constantly nurturing and enlarging his circle of friends and contacts. Some of the other assets that he brings to his chosen profession are a confident voice and an inner certainty that comes across even when he’s watching you from behind his Ray-Bans.

That does not mean he views himself as a world conqueror, up to any challenge. But he seems fully aware of the skills he has and is not shy about putting them to use when there is a need for them.

Clint with sisters Akeilah Morgan, 13, left, and her sister, Arianna, 12, whose Pratt City home was destroyed in the April storms. Alabama’s Lost Birthdays arranged for both sisters to have a combined birthday party at a skating rink.

In 2010, he put them to use in a contest with other young professionals to raise cancer research funds. In memory of his mother Diane, who died of cancer when he was three, DeShazo raised the largest amount, about $12,000, and thus earned that year’s title of Mr. Young Hot Birmingham Professional.

“I know a lot of generous individuals and I’m not scared to ask, especially for a good cause,” he says. Little did he know in 2010 that he would be asking again, and for a lot more than $12,000, in 2011.

DeShazo didn’t lose anything or any loved ones to the April 27 storms, but he quickly became acquainted with people who did, and at the time, he was in a position to help. He had recently made a couple of real-estate closings, which meant he was financially all right for a while, and he had a large moving van. He also had a willing, eager network and a sense that some smaller communities around the state were not getting the attention and support that was going to places like Tuscaloosa.

The relief effort seemed to go from dawn to dusk for a number of days. It involved loading up at places like Whole Foods and the Christian Service Mission, getting a refrigerated truck from Adams Produce and pickups from Adamson Ford, making deliveries, coming home at night and networking for money. By the time the relief effort had run its course, the network had raised about $25,000. There had been a structure, a going from point A to point B nature to the whole thing, that had made its challenges manageable.

The Lost Birthdays project was more complicated, largely because DeShazo wasn’t exactly sure how it was going to work. He had not been to a children’s birthday party in years.

“There were no parameters when I launched this,” he says. “It was a jump off the cliff, ‘Here’s the idea, I know it can affect a few people, and let’s do it.’”

Carolyn Wenndt, shown her with her mother Linda at her third birthday party last year at a park in Gardendale, was the first child to receive a party, courtesy of Alabama’s Lost Birthdays. A combination of tornado damage and other issues had made it difficult for Carolyn’s family to put on a party.

It quickly became evident that more than a few people would be affected. Twelve hours after its Facebook birth, the site had generated about 300 “likes.” (It now has about 2,800 fans.) In two days, it received six birthday requests, for children who were different from each other in age,  family circumstances, location and needs.

But the formula to give them a birthday celebration was a familiar one. DeShazo called upon his network, and it again came through  with money, donations or a willingness to underwrite an entire party. Adamson Ford, for example, became what DeShazo calls “the staging point” for birthday presents. Doree Boutique in Homewood, which had raised funds for the earlier relief effort, raised more for the birthdays, DeShazo says, and store manager Meredith Carter “gave a hands-on party herself.” Area bakers and grocery stores furnished cakes, balloon providers provided balloons, clowns and face painters made appearances, as well.

In addition, the Facebook site was pulling in contributions from around the country. Off the top of his head, DeShazo mentioned a Virginia-based group called Blankets for Bama Babies, which furnished theme blankets for the birthday children; individual contributors from such states as Texas and Arkansas; church groups in South Carolina and a student group at Florida State University.

Their help was needed. During two weeks in June, Lost Birthdays handled 30 parties.

By that time, DeShazo was not directly involved in the party coordinating and supplying. He had, in his words, hit his emotional, spiritual and physical wall, and he needed to return to earning a living and preparing for his marriage to Sami later in the year. While he continued to promote and raise money for the project, he turned its management, and the matching of gifts and donations and the party itself to the needs of the child, to a woman he calls “my girl,” who goes by “grannie” on the Facebook page.

Grannie is Linda Patterson, whose three-year-old granddaughter, Carolyn Wenndt, was the first Lost Birthdays party recipient. Patterson’s daughter Linda, Carolyn’s mother, also is involved in the project. So is her other daughter Lisa Benton, whose five-year-old  daughter Savannah Grace does beauty pageants which have raised Lost Birthdays money and collected birthday toys. Overall, the approach is similar to the one DeShazo used when he brought chain saws and even can openers to relief workers and first reponders in the early aftermath of the tornadoes:  to give the birthday children’s families the means to put on the party, never do it in their place.

“It’s been overwhelming at times,” Patterson says. She wasn’t referring only to the project’s challenging logistics but to the lives it has sought to touch. One Birmingham birthday girl, for example, could not keep many of her gifts because she was living in a shelter. When her clothes got dirty, Linda Wenndt would wash them.

In the devastated town of Phil Campbell, a boy named Justice Rupley and his sister Sky lost their 36-year-old father to a heart attack about two weeks before one of the April tornadoes came and injured their mother and destroyed their car, their home and a produce stand that helped feed the family. Justice and Sky got a joint birthday party in November, and DeShazo came up from Birmingham to attend. He kept a low profile, but he couldn’t help but smile as he once again watched people helping people they never knew before April 27.

That’s why he has said, time and again, that Alabama’s Lost Birthdays “wasn’t just me, by any stretch of the imagination. It was so many people and organizations, pulling together.

“Everybody likes seeing kids smile.”

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2 Responses to “Looking for Calm…”

  1. Melanie Pigg says:

    i am an EMT from Florence, we responded to Phil Campbell and Hackleburg on April 27.. I will never be able to erase the sights, sounds smells of the devastation.. But, my new friend Clint brought ao much joy to people I came to love. He will never be forgotten…. Not ever…. And all the ones who helped him make these families smile again… Love him forever! God Bless him and all his friends!

  2. Luan says:

    Very proud of you Clint and to help play a small role in what you did for Alabama residents!!

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