When one of the worst tornadoes in Alabama history tore through the heart of the state last spring leaving a tell-tale swath of devastation, the destructive storm dug into far more than just the homes and the land of Alabama. It reached into the soul of Alabamans everywhere, including longtime Augusta resident Alice Hagler, who was born and raised in Tuscaloosa. For her, it was a call to action.
On the night of April 27 as Hagler returned from a tennis dinner date with her husband, she casually flipped on the late evening news. Upon hearing a partial broadcast regarding an Alabama twister, she was confident it could not have struck Tuscaloosa, which had suffered a lesser storm only a week earlier. With an irrational hope, she reasoned tornadoes, like lightning, could not strike the same place twice.
When she called her brother in Huntsville, she asked only secondarily if Tuscaloosa had been hit. His response shocked her. “Did Tuscaloosa get hit? It was demolished! Where’ve you been?”
That night, the mother of seven barely slept. Grateful that another brother and his wife who live in Tuscaloosa were safe, she still searched anxiously for any news on the wind-torn area.The next day, as reports rolled in, and damage in the area could be seen, Hagler felt a growing burden to get to the storm-ravaged city to help.
During the weeks that followed, Hagler discussed with others what contribution they might make to aid in Alabama’s recovery. Eventually she parlayed her concern into a plan, the plan into a small band of volunteers and the small group into more than 30 students and adults. The team mainly composed of Aquinas High School students formed after the teenagers responded to flyers Hagler and others posted around the school. She was surprised by students readily willing to give their first week of summer break to work in the battered region. On May 31, the 28 students and chaperones drove six hours to Tuscaloosa.
Knowing housing options for volunteers would be limited, Hagler initally made plans for the group to stay in her brother’s basement. A nearby apartment housed additional students. Though the basement accommodations included small luxuries like large screen televisions and movie theater seating, the group had to look elsewhere for daily shower facilities. That meant trips to local pools with large locker rooms for clean up.
After safety training, the group worked for the next four days with an established volunteer organization clearing debris from properties. Armed with shovels, rakes and wheelbarrows, the team labored in up to 103-degree temperatures removing the rubble of partially and fully demolished homes.
Given Hagler’s deep local roots—her father founded a locally prominent drugstore chain that her brother still owns and operates—the group was able to avail themselves of some delights. Family ties with University of Alabama brought access to several of the university’s baseball players who shared their survival stories. Other unexpected treats included bountiful homemade meals from local residents, an evening at her brother’s country club, a swim in the university’s lazy river pool and lunch with the parish priest at his favorite restaurant.
In the midst of the work and respite, the group was powerfully impacted by the people of Alabama. On their wrists, they wore home a token from a candlelight vigil they attended with local residents, victims and city officials. The wristband both commemorates the terrible event and serves as a testament to the resiliency of its victims. Across the black-and-white houndstooth band are these simple words: “The Spirit of Tuscaloosa.”
The Augusta students and adults who served in the scathed city that week came home with an overarching sense of that spirit.
“We came to Tuscaloosa to help, but they gave us back so much,” Hagler says, quoting one of the students. “I know [the kids] will never forget it.”