Lending a Hand - Maxwell Airmen assist city devastated by tornado

  • Published
  • By Master Sgt. Scott Moorman
  • Air University Public Affairs
Two days after a devastating tornado severely damaged or completely leveled 150 homes in Prattville, Ala., Feb. 17, more than 20 Maxwell Air Force Base Airmen teamed up with 66 Officer Training School trainees from the base Feb. 19 to help the community recover.

The Enhanced Fujita Scale-3 tornado that swept through the city 15 miles northwest of Maxwell AFB produced winds of 150 mph and damaged more than 900 residences and businesses.

Armed with gloves to protect them from the debris they'd be sifting through, the Maxwell volunteers were quickly put to work Feb. 19, sorting piles of rubble to simplify pick-up by city work crews.

"When we stepped off the bus, we saw pure devastation," said Officer Trainee Joseph Van Valen as he and other volunteers sifted through rubble in a residential area of Prattville. "I have never seen anything like this before."

As Van Valen removed twisted metal panels from a mound of what used to be someone's home, he said he felt compassion for the resident.

"The very first thing I noticed about this house was that the kitchen was sitting in the open," he said pointing to a dwelling that was left without a roof and two exterior walls. "A kitchen is the center of any house. It's where (families) gather to get food. ... That was very moving to me."

As the group slowly made its way through the neighborhood, categorizing the refuse, Prattville residents took the opportunity to search for personal items ripped from their homes by the heavy winds.

Capt. James Damato, an OTS instructor who helped coordinate the base's volunteer effort, said he had access to a large number of people who could lend a hand in a time of crisis. He said the trainee's class schedule was rearranged to offer the community support.

"A lot of military -- retired and active duty -- live out in this community," he said. "These are our neighbors ... our families."

Maj. Gen. Alfred K. Flowers, Air Force Officer Accession and Training Schools commander, and Col. Paul McGillicuddy, the 42nd Air Base Wing commander, toured the site and talked with local officials.

Flowers said the disaster area broke his heart, and he pledged to provide more volunteers if needed.

"This is (a time) when the community needs our help," the general said. "They help us all the time. Now it's our time to help them."

McGillicuddy said the Maxwell community will continue to be good wingmen and assist the city as long as it takes, and knows the city wouldn't hesitate to do the same for the base.

"They are our neighbors, and we are here to help," the wing commander said. "We are just a phone call away for each other."

In addition to help with the cleanup, base officials held an emergency town hall meeting Feb. 19 for victims of the disaster. Some of the representatives that attended the meeting included those from finance, chaplain, medical, legal, Air Force Aid Society, child development center, traffic management office, and the Airman and Family Readiness Center.

Approximately 25 of the homes destroyed in Prattville belonged to base employees, while another 170 base employee residences were damaged. The base's privatized housing developer, Pinnacle-Hunt, offered on-base housing options for military families needing immediate shelter.

When U.S. Secretary of State Dr. Condoleezza Rice visited Maxwell in April, she expressed her appreciation to Lt. Gen. Stephen Lorenz, who heads Air University and will become the new commander of Air Education and Training Command this summer. She commended the general and Air Force members from Maxwell for their involvement in the community -- especially in aiding victims of Prattville during the tornado destruction.

"As a daughter of Alabama, I want to thank you," Rice said.