This is part two of a three part series.
On April 27th, the deadliest tornado outbreak since 1925 ripped through the Southern United States. As of April 30th, 249 people were confirmed dead by the Emergency Management Agency. The large majority of those deaths occurred within 100 miles of Birmingham, my home, and the home of the Birmingham Barons professional baseball team.
How do residents of a city, permanent or temporary, react to an event like that? They help.
Within hours of the storm, the Barons’ front office hatched a plan. Free admission would be given to any game during the current homestand with the donation of a case of bottled water or six canned goods. While I have no idea how much was donated, not my department, but I do know that the majority of the patrons who donated, donated more than the minimum.
Our front office was doing their part to help, the players wanted to do something too. The storm happened on a Wednesday, by the next day, we had a plan. We weren’t 100% we’d be able to execute it, but it was a solid plan.
A few players approached manager Bobby Magallanes with an idea, Bobby ate it up, and we moved forward. The players’ idea was to cancel batting practice one day and drive to volunteer at a devastated area. Tuscaloosa, Pleasant Grove, Pratt City, and Fultondale were the likely locations.
Bobby and general manager Jonathan Nelson had a conversation about it, and the wheels were in motion. Director of stadium operation James Young approached me on Friday. He talked to the Red Cross people in charge and we were likely going to be going to Pleasant Grove on Monday before the game.
Plans changed slightly, and James had us set up to meet at the ballpark at 10:45am to carpool to the Scott School in Pratt City, AL to work at a Red Cross disaster relief center. Pleasant Grove was still not to a point where visitors could enter the city. It was still controlled by the National Guard.
At 10:45 on the sunny and warm morning of Monday May 2nd, sixteen Barons players wearing their white home jerseys, our manager, three wives, a few members of our front office, visiting clubhouse manager Jan Dunlap, and I left for Pratt City, not really knowing what to expect.
I don’t want to use the word “chaos” to describe what we saw when we got ther, but “organized chaos” wouldn’t be too far fetched. The left turn lane onto the road that the school is one was backed up at least a quarter of a mile. Traffic was barely moving. There were many Birmingham police and Air Force and National Guardsmen with automatic weapons.
Once you were able to turn onto the road, you didn’t quite know what to do. The caravan used an array of methods to in order to park; jumping a curb, driving the wrong way, and moving tree limbs to create space. We all eventually got parked, then it was a matter of getting everyone together and trying to figure out where we were supposed to be going. As Jared Price, Brian Omogrosso, and I were waiting by the front of the school, directly in front of the line of traffic, for the rest of the group, a guy in an idling SUV asked where he was supposed to go to drop off cases of bottles water and juice he was donating. We looked at each other, not knowing the answer, and said, “We can take it for you.”
The three of us unloaded the back of his vehicle, walked inside, fought the hustle and bustle of people, and found the classroom that was designated “Bottled Water.” We dropped off the water and went back outside. There was kind of an unspoken “Hey! We found a task that we can do! Let’s stick with it!” We shouted at another truck idling in traffic, asked if they had a donation. The driver pulled onto the curb, let down the tailgate, and we unloaded probably 30 cases of water that were in the back of that one pick up! We continued to do that for a few minutes, doing our part to unload donations, alleviate traffic, and break a sweat.
Somebody, I can’t remember who, grabbed us and told us we had to go inside to register as volunteers. We filed in to a hot room and filled out a form with the usual “Name/phone number/address/emergency contact” questions. From there, I ended up being shuffled to the back parking lot of the school to help load, unload, and sort.
The basic principle that was happening was the unloading of donations at one end of the parking lot. The donations were brought inside to be sorted into separate classrooms for women’s clothing, men’s clothing, shoes, baby clothing/diapers, cleaning supplies/hygiene, and bottled water.
The food products were taken to the kitchen to be sorted there. There were boxes being loaded with the right proportions of canned goods, snack food, fruit, breads, and other food items that a family of a given number would need. The food boxes were brought out to a table outside the door. The donors would walk through the school to pick up the clothing, cleaning supplies, and hygiene products, then receive their food box at the table by the back door on the way to their cars! What looked like chaos at first, was one of the most organized and efficient processes that I had ever seen!
At first, I fell into the group of guys that were helping recipients load their supplies and food boxes at the back door. Then a lady walked out of the kitchen shouting “I need three strong men back here! I need three strong men back here!” Tyson Corley, Drew Garcia and I, ran back behind the food tables to the kitchen. The volunteers were sorting the food donations into the food boxes, we, along with other male volunteers, were going to carry the canned-food heavy boxes to the food table. We fell into place and became another step in the process. The work these volunteers were doing was unreal, it reminded me of Wall Street. People were shouting, “I need more canned goods over here!” and canned goods would be passed. Someone else would shout, “I need juice!” and bottles of juice would be passed over.
After a half hour or so, the food sorting room became a little crowded. I made my way back to the loading/unloading area with the majority of the other guys. We would grab a food box or bag of supplies for the female recipients, bring it to their vehicle, then on the way back we would walk through the donation area, unload a few vehicles, then make our way back over to the loading area.
Barons Players L-R: Justin Edwards, Dan Remenowsky, Tyler Kuhn, Brian Omogrosso. Janet Dunlap in the center.
With all the hustle, hurry, and military presence, not many of us got to see much of the devastated area that day. There were a couple of people, including GM Nelson, who had to carry aid to people’s houses or vehicles a few blocks away. When asked what it was like, the general response was “It was bad.” Short of a big downed tree across from the school and a few missing shingles on the roofs of the houses near the school, there wasn’t much you could see from where we were.
These players that came, came to work. Nobody showed up expecting to sign autographs, shake hands, and kiss babies. The first words out of everyone’s mouth were, “How can we help?” We actually worked so hard that day, that our strength and conditioning coach gave the guys who volunteered a free pass for the day’s weight lifting.
This is part two of a three part series about the effect the tornadoes that swept the South on April 27th have had on baseball and the communities in the area.
Part Three: Day Two in Pratt City, Alabama