Background: On April 27, 2011, a category EF4/EF5 tornado struck Tuscaloosa, Alabama, killing 45 people and destroying homes and livelihoods in a six-mile-wide area in the heart of the city. The hardest hit communities—such as Alberta City and Rosedale Court—were predominantly poor, black and Latino and included public and low-income housing. The business district, which employed many neighborhood people, was also destroyed. In total, an estimated 7,000 buildings were damaged or destroyed.
FEMA, the Red Cross, Catholic Social Services and state and local government agencies were on the scene assisting the victims, many of whom were homeless. But for undocumented Latinos, and households sheltering them, the “establishment” agencies were not an option. The people feared future investigation by the INS if they sought help from mainstream organizations. (This occurred following Hurricane Katrina.)
These Latinos, as well as others in the poor neighborhoods, turned to the nearest Catholic Church—Holy Spirit Parish—and Sister Celeste Burgos, MHSH, who is Pastoral Associate for the Hispanic Community.
By Sister Celeste Burgos, MHSH
Alabama is noted for its tornadoes, but it has never experienced a tornado of this magnitude. It is ironic that this happened during the first week after Easter, because Easter means rebirth, and suddenly there was total devastation and death. It was a very sad and very traumatic thing, but at the same time, out of that chaos a sense of new life has arisen in the people who were affected.
They lost loved ones; they all knew someone who had died and people who were in the hospital. All of this grief affected them; it affected me, also, as I listened to the stories of every person who came for help.
But something else affected me, too. The parish hall was set up as an emergency shelter, where about 200 people spent the night. They gathered together as a family to help one another. People who were not affected by the tornado came; they shared food, clothes, everything that they had.
The unity there so impressed me. We had Hispanics, African Americans as well as Anglos—everyone came. There were people from other parishes and other religious groups that came to help. This was a beautiful experience that has stayed in my mind and my heart.