BY MICHELLE KEY
AND HANNAH LESTER
Today, March 3, 2022, marks three years since the devastating EF-4 long-track tornadoes roared through Lee County, killing 23 and affecting nearly 800 homes, with almost 50% of those being either completely destroyed or sustaining major damage.
It was sometime during the next day that Laura Eason, chaplin for East Alabama Health, realized that the community was going to be grieving for a long time and would need a lot of assistance to get through the days ahead.
“That Monday afternoon, we gathered at Providence Baptist with the families who had lost loved ones as they met with the coroner, local clergy, counselors and social workers,” Eason said. “It was then that I knew the healing process was going to be a marathon and not a sprint.”
Over the few days, mend[sic] was “birthed” as Eason recalled. “We knew it was going to take all of us working together and communication between groups was going to be vital,” she said. “The right hand had to know what the left hand was doing as to not duplicate efforts. We needed to throw the net really wide and include as many organizations as possible in the recovery efforts.”
‘Rebuild Lee County; One Life At A Time’ became the motto of the newly formed organization. mend partnered with national disaster response groups and numerous lee county organizations, agencies and businesses. Major Partners included: EAMC, EMA, the cities of Auburn, Opelika and Smiths Station, Lee County Sheriff’s Department, United Way, Community Foundation of East Alabama, A.R.M., Chattahoochee Fuller Center, High Socks of Hope, Red Cross, FEMA, VOAD, Samaritans Purse, Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, Eight Days of Hope, Team Rubicon, Alabama Baptist Disaster Relief, UMCOR, Home Depot, Lowes, Walmart, Auburn Athletics, AU Building Science and Auburn University.
More than 80 churches, schools, funeral homes, civic clubs, banks, realtors, social workers, counselors, contractors, furniture stores, restaurants and businesses also joined forces to assist mend in its efforts to rebuild Lee County.
The organization received a tremendous amount of donations, all of which were depleted by the end of 2021. At that time, mend requested financial assistance from the Governor’s Emergency Relief Fund (GERF) in order to complete its recovery efforts. It did receive those needed funds and were able to complete all of the projects and is no longer accepting donations.
Alabama Rural Ministry (A.R.M.) recently completed some final home repair cases and with those completed, Eason said that mend feels as though the tornado recovery effort has finished.
“We have spent the last year finishing up those needed home repairs that were damaged by the 2019 tornadoes,” Eason said. “We hear from some of the survivors from time to time, that still have a few needs and try as best we can to connect them to resources in the community to help meet their ongoing needs.”
The recovery efforts initially focused on search and rescue efforts and clearing the roadways and getting power restored by the rescue, public safety and utility personnel. Those efforts quickly changed to focusing on the grieving families laying to rest their loved ones and healing the injured, to make sure the survivors had food, clothing and shelter. Temporary housing and furniture needs became a major focus in the early weeks. Counseling sessions and support groups for the survivors were also set up.
As supplies and donations poured in the warehouse and distribution center that had been set up, mend went to work making sure those supplies were distributed to the ones in need. Next came the clearing of the downed trees and debris with heavy equipment and volunteer teams from local churches as well as teams from all over the country that traveled to Lee County to assist with the massive clean-up effort.
Partnering with the Fuller Center, mend was able to build 20 new homes for families that lost everything. Samaritan’s Purse provided 13 mobile homes and one house to survivors of the storm.
During the last three years, there have been tens of thousands of volunteer hours, by more than 10,000 individuals, spent on repairing damaged homes.
“The outpouring of love and compassion this community has shown our neighbors in Beauregard and Smiths Station has been truly amazing,” Eason said.
mend has formed relationships with many of the families that were so heavily impacted three years ago, and Eason said the organization will continue to assist them as needs arise. When asked what is next for mend, she said that it will be here to continue to support the community when and where needed.
“We hear from some of the survivors from time to time, that still have a few needs and try as best we can to connect them to resources in the community to help meet their ongoing needs,” Eason said. “I believe mend provided a great opportunity for Lee County to ‘Love our Neighbors’ by ‘Putting OUR Faith into Action.’ Please continue to pray for the families who lost loved ones on that terrible day as they continue their grief journey.”
Eason has served as the chairperson of mend since its inception.
“It has been a wonderful journey — and a sacred honor to serve as the mend chairperson over the last three years,” Eason said.
According to Eason, a revisioning of the Lee County VOAD (Volunteer Organizations Assisting in Disaster) is underway with the Lee County Emergency Management Agency (LCEMA) leading this effort.
LCEMA Director Rita Smith said that VOAD is a component of the EMA and faith-based volunteers are members of VOAD.
“The Lee County VOAD was and continues to be a great asset when disaster strikes,” Smith said. “We are so thankful for the fantastic relationships we have with all of our VOAD partners.”