'A crutch some people don't have'

As a massive F4 tornado roared toward Birmingham, Ala., on April 27, 2011, George Washington Hayden took shelter in his basement.

“I thought, ‘I’m 62 years old and I’ve never seen a tornado,’” he recalls. “After I pulled the curtain back and looked out the window, the spirit of God said, ‘Stand back.’ And at that moment, it hit. You could see it, hear it, feel it. That window I was standing at shattered.”

When Hayden emerged from his two-story home, he noticed all its windows were blown out except those in his study. Somehow that was the only room the tornado didn’t damage. “That’s God’s room,” the pastor says. “All my books, Bibles and tapes are in that room.”

After wrecking the homes of Hayden and several others, the tornado moved downhill, spreading its wrath throughout the neighborhood. Though tornadoes had been predicted, the severity of the destruction shocked homeowners. 

“We thanked God for all of our lives,” recalls Hayden, adjutant of American Legion Post 1165 in Birmingham. “Our neighbors all just walked outside and cried and hugged.”

The multiple-vortex tornado reached sustained maximum winds of 190 mph as it ripped a path of destruction from Tuscaloosa to Birmingham, causing $2.4 billion in damage and killing dozens of people in what is one of the deadliest outbreaks of tornadoes ever recorded. About 1,500 people were injured.

In the storm’s aftermath, Hayden was one of several recipients of grants from the Legion’s National Emergency Fund (NEF). A handyman, he wanted to purchase a truck to haul materials and equipment so he could start to rebuild his home; he used the grant to help cover the cost. 

“With the grant I got from The American Legion, I talked (the truck’s owner) down and bought it,” he says. “It has been very helpful in bringing in supplies because I did all my own repairs. It would have been very difficult (without the grant). When
I get a sum of money, I don’t want to spend it frivolously.” 

NEIGHBORS NO MORE A couple of miles away, neighbors Willie Scott and Glenn Thomas were planting tomatoes as the storm approached. They scrambled into their homes just in time. 

For the 35-year neighbors, this was the third and final straw. Their homes sustained minor damage from tornadoes in 1977 and 1998, but the F4 that hit in 2011 demolished their houses and destroyed their vehicles.

“As I looked around, I said, ‘Praise the Lord. We’re all safe and not harmed,’” Thomas recalls. “At the time I told Mr. Scott, ‘That’s enough for me. That’s two for me (Thomas was stationed at Fort Benning in 1977) and three for my family. I know I am not coming back.’”

The Scott and Thomas families moved elsewhere around Birmingham, now living 12 miles apart. The longtime friends still see each other every couple of weeks.

“The tornado tried to suck (my wife) up and she was hollering and screaming,” Scott remembers. “It didn’t last long. It looked like black mud. She kept screaming and hollering. My wife cried for two weeks. She had PTSD: post-tornado stress disorder. We lost everything but our lives.”

Both men credit then-National Commander Jimmie Foster and Post 1165’s commander – Joe Thomas, Glenn’s brother – with helping them secure immediate NEF grants they used for food and transportation. 

“Thank God for The American Legion,” Scott says. “It means a hell of a lot that there are organizations that aren’t all about taking; they are about giving. I’m proud of the Legion and I’m proud to be a member of the Legion.”

Disasters such as the Birmingham tornado are why the NEF exists: to help American Legion Family members in their most desperate hour. 

“I first learned of the NEF during a flooding emergency in my home state of Georgia,” says American Legion National Commander Dale Barnett, who has set a goal to raise $1 million for the program this year. “I cannot express how important it is to provide some immediate financial resources to someone who has been struck by a hurricane, tornado, flooding, wildfire or other devastating natural disaster.

“It’s an honor to be able to provide support to these veterans and their families in their time of need.” 

‘READY TO HELP’ Last October, severe flooding hit South Carolina. A weather system brought tropical moisture into the state and then stalled, creating a historic three-day rainfall that displaced residents and caused billions of dollars in damage.

“(People) couldn’t get out to the roads, which became rivers,” recalls Greg Bennett, adjutant at American Legion Post 69 in Andrews. “Legionnaires came down to the town hall to help out and offered the Legion hall for use as a staging area to give out supplies. However, the National Guard said the Legion (building) was actually under about five feet
of water.”

So Legion Family members pitched in, helping unload food and cleaning supplies at the Andrews town hall, a Baptist church and a National Guard Armory. After a few days, post members were finally able to assess the damage to their building.

“When we finally got into Post 69, it was devastating,” Bennett says. “There were crawfish all over, muddy water and the stench of mold. The chairs were pushed all over, the tables were ruined – everything was waterlogged.”

A $6,000 NEF grant helped Post 69 begin to rebuild, with a new vision for serving veterans and local families. Post members are still repairing damage, including insulation, tiled floor and paneled walls. At the same time, they’ve made sweeping changes, such as removing the bar and surrendering the liquor license to turn the post building into a community center. In addition, the post’s service officer will have office space.

“We know that help came from our American Legion Family, and that is so uplifting,” says Bennett, adding that the post is planning to reopen for Memorial Day. “My commander, myself and all our members are very grateful.”

During his years of membership in The American Legion, Barnett says he has witnessed the power of the nation’s largest veterans service organization in times of need.

“Much of what The American Legion does is veterans helping veterans,” Barnett says. “The National Emergency Fund is a prime example of how veterans can help their brothers and sisters who have faced the wrath of a natural disaster. From wildfires in the West to tornadoes in the Midwest to flooding along the East Coast, NEF stands ready to help those in need.”

For Hayden, the NEF grant he received five years ago is a great example of what makes the Legion and its members so special.

“I thank God for The American Legion,” he says. “Not only did the Legion help during this storm, but it helped me file claims with VA. I think with The American Legion, I have a little crutch that some people don’t have. It’s a very powerful organization, and I’m proud to be part of it.”  

 

Henry Howard is deputy director of The American Legion’s Media & Communications Division.