Approximately 11 p.m. Wednesday, the Calhoun County Emergency Management Agency announced the Saks Community Center on Hess Road would be opened “as a location to file a report and check on the status of a missing relative.” The announcement came just hours after a wave of tornadoes swept across Alabama, killing at least 61 statewide and two in Calhoun County.
By midnight, a few volunteers were arranging furniture at the community center and preparing for the first visitors. Most, like Len McCauley, were roused from bed about an hour earlier.
“I thought I was done with storms for the night,” said McCauley, who saw no serious damage at his DeArmanville home.
McCauley, a retiree whose previous work was in hospital administration, is a volunteer for the Northeast Alabama Critical Response Team. He and his colleagues say the team consists of volunteers who help with natural disasters and other crises. With no clients in their charge yet, the half-dozen volunteers talked easily about being rousted out of bed, of the need for a pot of coffee and of the pleasure of helping the community.
“I heard a lot of good things about Pleasant Valley this morning,” said County Commissioner J.D. Hess, who volunteered alongside the response team. “After the storms came through, people came out with chainsaws and started cleaning up.”
The volunteers didn’t talk about the potentially grim side of their task. No one said that an operation like this had never been set up in Calhoun County in recent memory. Or that two rural communities — Webster’s Chapel and Big Oak — were reportedly the site of tornado touchdowns, with recovery efforts still ongoing in the dark and the death toll expected to rise. Or that the volunteers’ skills leaned heavily toward counseling.
It wasn’t clear, at midnight, which county agency created the operation. Volunteers at the center referred questions to Sheriff’s Office Chief Deputy Matt Wade. Wade referred some questions to the county coroner, Pat Brown.
“Tonight’s been a very hard, very tragic night for our county,” Wade said. He said he’d participated in a similar operation before, after Hurricane Katrina.
“We’re just trying to keep people informed, and make sure people with relatives who are injured or hurt get the information they need,” Wade said.
Wade said that if people brought in questions about their missing loved ones, the Sheriff’s Office would put its resources to work finding them.
The coroner’s office has yet to release the names of the two people confirmed killed in Calhoun County. Asked if there were more bodies that needed to be identified, Wade said that was a question for Brown.
“I don’t want to step on the coroner’s toes,” he said. “That’s a question for him to answer.”
Volunteers still say they hope no one will come in — that no one will have to. But with two deaths already, they knew that wasn’t likely.
“We respond to the first responders when they have a need, and that often involves deaths,” said response team volunteer Barton Owens. Like the other volunteers, Owens, pastor of Antioch Baptist Church in Bynum, was settling in for the night when he got the call to come and help. His normal Wednesday prayer meeting never happened.
“We cancelled church tonight due to the weather,” he said. “I’m glad we did.”