After the April 27 tornado, Linda Christian thought she had avoided serious damage. Her yard was a mess, but her home was intact and her family and pets were safe.
The New Orleans native has cleaned up and rebuilt too many times she said, and this time, she thought she was safe.
Then, two weeks after the storm, she discovered a leak.
“My four-year-old granddaughter, she came in and said ‘Ma ma I didn’t wet the bed!’” said Christian. “I asked if she had spilled, and she said ‘No. I didn’t do anything. It’s just all wet back there.’”
Christian went to investigate the rarely used back bedroom and discovered the bed had acted as a sponge, soaking up rain water since the day storm hit. A small hole in the ceiling was the culprit, caused by a large branch that had fallen on the roof. With water soaking the carpet and creeping into the next room, Christian needed to find a tarp to cover the hole as soon as possible.
“I went through Calhoun County with a fine-tooth comb,” Christian said. Tarps were in high demand in the weeks after the storm as homeowners patched their roofs and pitched tents for temporary housing. Hardware and home improvement stores were out and so were area churches and donation pickup centers. Finally local firefighters directed Christian to the Webster’s Chapel relief center.
There she met Randy Boyer, who works with the Catholic Diocese of Calhoun County and the Interfaith Center of Concern in Anniston. Boyer was connecting people in need with resources and volunteer groups.
Christian got her tarp and went home satisfied.
“I was tickled pink over just this blue tarp,” she said.
Later she received a phone call from the Rev. Jose Ortega, a pastor from the National Association of Christian Churches in Texas.
“He said ‘I believe I have some carpet and paint for you,’ I said you must have me on the wrong list, all I wanted was a tarp,” she said.
Soon Ortega put his network of supplies and volunteers to work boxing up Christian’s possessions, ripping out the waterlogged carpet and painting.
“We deployed to Alabama three days after tornadoes,” Ortega said.
His group worked in Tuscaloosa and Pratt City clearing debris and helping residents rebuild. Eventually they made their way to Gadsden and connected with the Catholic Center of Concern there. Working as a team, the groups match up storm survivors with supplies and labor.
“They do the case work. We do the rebuilding and whatever labor needs to be done,” Ortega said.
Then Ortega met Randy Boyer, who told him about the heavily damaged Ohatchee area. Ortega and Boyer compared lists of families and materials to decide who they could best help.
“The ones best served are the ones with little resources,” Boyer said, citing a lack of insurance and FEMA funds as the biggest issues.
In Christian’s home and others throughout the storm-affected areas in Calhoun and Etowah counties Ortega and dozens of volunteers have replaced roofs, windows, siding, sheetrock and carpets, cleared properties to ready them for rebuilding and repainted.
“Just whatever’s necessary to get them back to normal,” Boyer said. “Rev. Ortega has even gone to buy a lawnmower for one family who lost theirs in the storm.”
Ortega is no stranger to disaster emergency response. He has traveled all over the country helping out, including to California last year after severe flooding. Over the years he has made connections with volunteer and church groups as well as groups who donate supplies, around the country.
“He’ll make a phone call and say I need a truck full of shingles,” Boyer said. “That’s the kind of resources we don’t have”
Ortega said individuals or groups representing people in need email him or personally tell him what kind of materials they need.
“We come and we’ll try to get the material over and provide it to them,” he said. “We get it donated from Dallas or wherever.”
Some large groups, like World Vision, have warehouses of materials waiting to be given to those in need, Ortega said.
Then Ortega reaches out to churches asking if they can provide labor or vehicles to make deliveries.
Groups from every denomination have worked with Ortega, he said.
“With all different groups coming in we get with a group leader and they set a date for them to come,” he said.
On Saturday a large group will be deployed to Linda Christian’s house to finish up all the work that’s been started, Ortega said.
“I wasn’t expecting this much,” Christian said.
The Desert Storm veteran said she’s used to giving, not receiving, and feels like she’s finally being repaid for a life of service.
“There’s really no words to express it except I’m blessed,” she said.
Christian said she has rarely met a man as passionate and faithful as Ortega.
“His faith is like — put on your boxing gloves, Satan.”
Star staff writer Alison Gene Smith: 256-235-3550