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Still blessed, one family begins rebuilding their lives

By Julia Sellers

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. – On Easter weekend, Jenny Oliva’s biggest concern was what to cook for dinner. Happily settled into a Habitat home in Alberta, Ala., she reminded her four children how blessed their family was.

Three days later, the family huddled in a hallway as a tornado crushed their home around them. Even after that, Oliva considers her family blessed.

“So many people have given us clothes that we don’t even need clothes,” she said. And despite having to wake her children at 5 a.m. for two bus rides to school, they have a roof over their heads thanks to the generosity of Oliva’s parents.

‘You have to keep it together’
A week of storm systems had the Olivas and many other Alabama residents thinking the National Weather Service was being overly cautious in its warnings on April 27. And so daily life continued despite news of impending tornadoes. It was just another overcast afternoon, perfect for Oliva to sit on the porch of her home — built in partnership with Habitat for Humanity of Tuscaloosa — and soak in neighborhood life. She watched her four children — Olivia, 13; Abigail and Josh, 10; and Caleb, 9 — and a neighborhood friend play.

“A neighbor even walked by and asked what we were doing outside, and I jokingly said, ‘Watching the storm,’” said Oliva.

As the wind kicked up, though, Oliva rushed the children inside to crouch in the hallway with pillows and blankets. Just after 5 p.m., the pressure of the storm forced the family to move deeper into the hallway as the house felt like it was ripping off the foundation, Josh said. As Josh moved, he saw the tornado across the street.

“It sounded like a jet was in front of us,” he said. “I thought everyone was dead except me.”

As a tree crashed through the kitchen and ripped off most of the roof, insulation started swirling like snow.

Josh prayed aloud while his sisters screamed. Oliva pushed her children farther down the hall because she could feel herself being sucked toward the damage.

“We were all really freaking out,” she said. “But you have to keep it together.”

A minute that seemed like an hour ripped the neighborhood to shreds.

The EF-4 tornado killed 41 people in Tuscaloosa County. More than 230 Alabama residents died, with deaths totaling more than 350 in the six states the storm system hit. About 30 of the Tuscaloosa deaths were associated with mobile homes or vulnerable housing, according to the Tuscaloosa Sheriff’s Office. Five Tuscaloosa residents are still unaccounted for.

Dodging a bullet
Across town, staff members at the Habitat for Humanity of Tuscaloosa offices decided to close up about 3:30 p.m., just in case the storm warnings were true.

“It didn’t look that bad, but we were already concerned about our volunteers getting home that didn’t live around here,” said Steve Kavanaugh, HFH Tuscaloosa president.

Steve followed a volunteer in her car until they reached the University of Alabama campus, then suggested they take cover in the hallways of the office building. The tornado dodged the university on its way to Alberta, less than a mile away.

Kavanaugh called his three sons and ex-wife to make sure they were OK and then ushered the volunteer home before the next wave of storms came through.

Five days later, Kavanaugh and affiliate employees and volunteers finally got back into their Habitat offices on 15th Street to see just how close their offices had been to major destruction.

“Had we been here, we would have had a front-row seat,” said Donna Hallman, office manager.

Just across the street, the tornado destroyed Rosedale Courts, one-story cinder block and brick government housing. Cars with roofs peeled off like tin cans lay abandoned in pulverized rooms; not one roof was left intact. The Salvation Army was gone and car lots were filled with scrap metal.

Yet the Habitat offices stood completely untouched. Other than the damage the Olivas suffered, the majority of Habitat partner families escaped with minor wind damage to their homes and broken car windows.

“We’re very fortunate,” Kavanaugh said through tears as he looked across the street at the Salvation Army on May 6.

“We’re here for the long haul,” he said. “It’s a chance to renew the affiliate and it gives us the challenge and opportunity to make it a more effective affiliate.”

Seeing good in bad
The Tuscaloosa affiliate is getting invaluable advice from others in the Habitat world, including the Bay-Waveland affiliate on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, that have experienced natural disasters. And the outpouring of help — from volunteers to clothing donations — has nearly overwhelmed the city, Kavanaugh said.

Local government officials estimate it will take the city six months to even clear all the debris.

It will be at least that many months before the Olivas are back in their home. Humor has helped them cope with displacement and uncertainty in their daily lives. Josh’s older sisters tease him about his reaction to the storm in the hallway, while Abigail jokes about Olivia’s concerns about her friends while their family was still trying to get out of the neighborhood.

For this family, though, the April 27 storms gave them a new perspective that will last long after the cleanup is finished.

“I’m glad that we’re alive,” said Olivia. “Before I would stay in my room a lot and we would fight. It’s not like that so much anymore.”