Two people found shelter and chatted about the weather. Horrible day, one said.
Benjamin Torres-Ramos quickly interjected, “Could be April 27th.”
The day when tornadoes ripped across Alabama will always hang in Torres-Ramos’ mind as the day he lost his home. May 3, 2012, will always be the day he got it back.
Through efforts of the Salvation Army, United Methodist Committee on Relief and NASCAR star Denny Hamlin, Torres-Ramos has a home again. Built but empty, the home was furnished Thursday by Hamlin and his pit crew.
“I’m sure he’ll never forget what used to be here,” Hamlin said, “but this is part of the new Tuscaloosa that’s going to be built.”
A truck sporting the FedEx logo, who paid to make Torres-Ramos’ house a home, delivered everything from appliances to bedding. Hamlin’s No. 11 Sprint Cup Series car sat in the driveway.
“He can leave that here,” Torres-Ramos joked.
The quaint frame home sits near an overpass off University Boulevard in Alberta City. With fresh mulch and flowers and the smell of treated pine still lingering in the air, it’s a far cry from what was destroyed or what Torres-Ramos and his children have lived in for the past year.
Torres-Ramos called the original residence more of a building than a home, sitting on a plot of land where he hoped to one day put a trailer. His temporary conditions after the storm weren’t much better.
“It wasn’t much, nothing like central heat and air,” he said. “During the winter, we had to all sleep in the same room.”
Cold and cramped may be unpleasant for some, but it was together --- much more than Torres-Ramos could say one year ago. He was in Orlando caring for his mother when the tornado came through; his children were staying with their mother in nearby Holt.
While the tornado spared them, it would be more than 24 hours before Torres-Ramos knew anything of their condition. His children --- Arianna, 13; Carderrius, 5; and Alana Marie, 3 --- still have nightmares about that day, he said. Arianna said Thursday felt just as surreal.
“I never expected that this many people would help us, that this many people cared,” she said.
Care, they did. Hamlin and his crew were not there solely for a photo opportunity. Piece by piece they filled the new home, unboxed it all and then put it all together. Although they can change four tires and fill a car with gas in less than 15 seconds, crew chief Darian Grubb struggled with a screwdriver and the positioning of a bracket.
“We usually have a whole box full of tools,” he said.
With the work buzzing all around him, Torres-Ramos’ day was a parade of hugs and congratulations that concluded United Methodist Committee on Relief and the Salvation Army’s application and approval processes. All done, the house is a symbol of the town’s hopes to eventually rebuild. Meanwhile, it’s a stark contrast to the area around it.
“I’ve never seen a natural disaster in person,” Hamlin said. “Driving in, I couldn’t believe it. I was like, ‘Did this happen last month? Last week?’”
The mangled trees and the blank landscape around the home remain visible reminders of the devastation, but through the happiness of the day they were barely noticed. Inside the home away from the rain, Torres-Ramos said thanking everyone didn’t seem like enough.
“Y’all can stay as long as you want,” he said to the 30-some-odd people, “I’ll order pizza or something.”
Bran Strickland is the assistant managing editor for The Star. He can be reached at 256-235-3570 or follow him on Twitter @bran_strickland.