This is part three of a three part series.
The Birmingham Barons players, manager, a few front office members and I caravanned to the Red Cross disaster relief center at The Scott School in Pratt City, AL on Monday May 2nd (See Part Two: “How Can We Help?”) to volunteer our time and energy . The following day the Barons’ front office and I (the players left on a road trip to Jackson, TN that morning) were planning to go back to do more work.
Coincidentally, The Jacksonville Suns professional baseball team had also planned to stop and work at the relief center on their way from Montgomery to Huntsville. They were supposed to have a game in Huntsville on Tuesday, but it was postponed because Joe Davis Stadium in Huntsville still did not have power. The team could have had a day off, but they chose to help the citizens of Jefferson County, AL.
We arrived at The Scott School around noon, and the scene was completely different than the day before, the impending weather undoubtedly kept donors, people seeking aid, and, perhaps, a few volunteers away. Where there was a line of police officers and military patrols the day before, there was one cop, maybe two.
There was still work to be done. We made our way to the back parking lot of the school where were people loading and unloading. I spent more time on the unloading donations side than I did Monday. There were individuals dropping off trash bags of clothes, cases of water, and bags of cleaning supplies. There were church vans dropping off racks of clothes and loads of food. There were also individuals and companies from as far away as Wisconsin and South Florida dropping off trailers full of donations.
The Red Cross’s system had slightly evolved for the better in a day’s time. Instead of bringing cases upon cases of bottled water into the school, just to bring them back outside, they had just started stacking them behind the school. “How many cases of bottled water do you need? Ok, let me just walk over here and grab one for you.” Much more efficient.
Because of the slightly slower pace than the day before, I actually got to have conversations with a few donors and other volunteers. There was a younger guy, he looked barely eighteen, who had pulled his grill trailer from Greensboro, NC to cook hot dogs and burgers for the volunteers to eat. I met a girl who was a student at the University of Alabama. She watched the tornado take out Tuscaloosa from her dorm just a few miles away.
The rain began to come down around 2:00. The center slowed a little more, and the parking lot turned to mud soup, but we continued to unload, sort, and load.
I had talked to Suns’ broadcaster Roger Hoover earlier in the day, the team planned to show up around 3:00. I was worried that there would be little for the guys to do and they might not be able to grasp the severity and scope of the situation.
The Suns’ bus pulled in right on time. I walked over to the area where the Red Cross representatives were briefing Andy Barkett and his team. I found a few players that I recognized and recognized me, shook some hands, and walked them around.
The team had been asked to stay out of the cold rain as much as possible. I don’t blame them for that, these guys have careers on the line. You miss a few games with pneumonia, you may get passed up in the organization, and miss your one chance at a big league career. Once again, I do not blame them for that.
I was walking with Jeff Allison and Jake Smolinksi toward the back door to explain what we’d been doing. Allison asked if we could see the damage from the tornado. He wanted to see the town out of genuine care and concern and to be able to fathom what had happened. I told him it wasn’t but a block or two away, but I hadn’t tried to walk toward it for fear of getting M-16’d. So, the three of us walked down the road in front of the school a little way, waving or nodding at National Guardsmen on our way, what we saw was unbelievable.
From a little ways a way, I saw a roof. It was a roof to a big building, like a church. It looked funny, but we couldn’t quite figure out why. It looked like it was a roof to a building that was over a hill, where the building part was being hidden by the hill, and you could only see the roof. As we stepped over shingles, tree branches, and boards to get closer, you could finally see that the building had collapsed. It looked off because the building was basically gone, the roof had kept it’s shape and was resting on the ground.
From about two blocks from the school, you could see houses with half the house missing and a flat part on the top of a hill that once had houses on it. You could also see military vehicles and work trucks of all varieties; debris removal, power, water, and vans to transport workers and volunteers.
I went to the Mississippi Gulf Coast three days after Katrina. It was a different scene. In Biloxi, 75% of the buildings were about 75% gone. In Pratt City, 20% of the buildings were 100% gone. I don’t know how to describe it, I’m not trying to be funny, but it was a different level and different type of goneness than Southern Mississippi was six years ago.
The two Suns and I turned around, headed back to The Scott School. I had a great conversation with the two about what it was like in Birmingham, what parts of the state were affected, and what we, as a state, were trying to accomplish.
When we got back to the back entrance, there was a Ryder truck pulled up to the door of the kitchen. Five or six male volunteers were just beginning to shuttle a truck full of MRE’s from the truck about 30 yards through the mud and into the building. I left my conversation with Allison midsentence and ran to join the chain, not expecting he or Smolinski to disobey orders and follow me. However, they were right next to me a second or two later.
I looked to the door at the side of the building, and about fifteen players were standing inside the doorway. They looked like excited little puppies with that “My master told me to stay and not go outside, but look at those other puppies! They’re all outside and it looks like they’re so much having fun!”
The group simultaneous broke their leashes, ran to the line, and started passing MRE’s! What started out as five guys passing a thousand or two boxes inside became five guys, plus me, plus half the Florida Marlins’ AA roster. From that point on, it was open season. The Suns’ players were in the rain, walking through the mud, loading and unloading cars.
Before too long, my body had had enough of the cold rain and I had to walk inside to warm up. I started a talking to one player about what had happened in Pratt City, Tuscaloosa, Pleasant Grove, and Fultondale. That one player turned into two players, then three, and before long, I was talking to about ten guys.
Talking to the Jax team was completely different than talking to my team. My guys had been through it, seen it all unfold on the the local news, they had rode buses through these towns and had at least seen signs for the cities that were on their tv’s being destroyed by Mother Nature.
The Suns hadn’t. They hadn’t seen much of anything on the news, they didn’t know which areas were hit or if Regions Park had sustained any damage. They were totally interested in what was going on and listened to every bit of the information I gave them, it was the first they heard of it. Despite knowing nothing about the situation or the people affected, they were genuinely enthused and wanted to help in any way they could.
I told the Birmingham Barons and Jacksonville Suns this same thing:
It’s great that you want to help, it’s awesome that you want to carry boxes and get sweaty in the heat or muddy in the rain, but you being here is doing two things that you may not be able to see. You’re showing the citizens in this community that there are people outside of the area that you are from somewhere else and you care and know what’s going on. You’re also talking to your people back home (or in Jacksonville) and telling them about what’s going on and making them aware of the difficulties and the need. Those two things are huge because this situation was buried by and wedged between the royal wedding and the death of Osama bin Laden.
The Jacksonville Suns and Florida Marlins have all my respect after Tuesday. Not just for the work that they did, not only because they sacrificed an off day for us, Birmingham citizens, but also because the chose to get rained on and muddy in their street clothes, two hours from a shower and change of clothes at the hotel in Huntsville. Thank you, gentlemen.
This is part three 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 Two: “How Can We Help?”
Photos Courtesy of Jacksonville Suns radio voice, Roger Hoover
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