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Mission Time Well Spent on “Road to Recovery” HFHI staffers help affiliates rebuild in tornado zone

By Julia Sellers

Almost four months after a series of massive tornadoes ripped across the U.S. Southeast and Midwest, life looks a little more normal.

In the busiest parts of Tuscaloosa, Alabama, business goes on as usual, just in time for back-to-school shoppers and the return of University of Alabama students.

But it only takes the turn of a corner to see acres of snapped trees and an empty skyline, making it impossible to forget that residents are still recovering from the EF 4 tornado that hit on April 27.

“It’s almost like you’re building a brand-new subdivision on the outskirts of town, but you’re in the middle of town,” said Mike Mongeon, a sustainable building learning specialist, based in Atlanta.

Earlier this month, Mongeon and a handful of other Habitat for Humanity International employees took advantage of using mission leave time in the Road to Recovery efforts to assist seven affiliates coping with tornado damages.

With Alabama a three- to four-hour road trip away, employees focused on Tuscaloosa, Birmingham and Marion County, where their mission time varied from one day or one week.

“It’s so odd to see the mailman coming to a neighborhood where hundreds of homes once stood, and now there are three houses that are livable,” said Mongeon, who worked with two families in the Holt community, just outside Tuscaloosa.

After leading two Global Village trips to Brazil, Mongeon said preparation to travel just one state over was very similar to traveling to a different continent, including being ready to carry bread and peanut butter and jelly for the week’s lunches and being mindful of the heat.

“I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect, and you have to have a frame of mind where you’re really flexible,” he said. “Overseas, you prepare yourself to see the extreme poverty.

“Here, there’s just complete and utter devastation. You aren’t prepared to see that necessarily, because it’s been months since these storms, and everyone else has moved on.”

In Birmingham, Susan O’Connell, an instructional designer based out of Atlanta, got to see the fruits of months of rebuilding during her day trip Aug. 5.

“It’s an interesting mix right now,” she said. “Some homes are completely destroyed, and then you have others where the homeowners have already moved back in. I’m struck by how much Habitat has done.”

On Allen Street, where many of the Greater Birmingham Habitat for Humanity affiliate’s homes are located, 15 homes are in need of repairs or rebuilding. O’Connell and her group assisted with cleanup to get the Cephus family back in their home.

“It was the usual (construction) site, with paint cans lying around and dirt on the floor that needs to be swept,” she said. “You hear about how emotional it is to see these homeowners move in on dedication day, and it felt very similar that afternoon when they returned to a clean home. It definitely added to the experience.

“Even if it’s just a day, it’s nice to take advantage of this opportunity to do what I could do,” O’Connell said.