The capturing and killing of Osama bin Laden put many of us in a celebratory mood, but landing in Birmingham, Alabama yesterday and arriving in a town called Pratt City put things in perspective. No pictures, no video, no news footage can tell the story like actually seeing it for yourself – not just seeing it, but being here to touch and hug the people going through it.

If anything good could have come out of Hurricane Katrina and the earthquake in Haiti, it is that each of these disasters taught us something about how we can better come to the aid of others.

In 2010, after the earthquake in Haiti, the TJMS crew and I went there to lend a hand, and what we quickly discovered was that people, with the best intentions, sent tons of things that couldn’t be used.

Here in Alabama, they are specific about what their needs are, and I want us to be specific about what we send them. Helping out in a disaster is not a time for us to clean out our closets, pantries and medicine cabinets and ridding them of things we don’t want anymore. Helping is providing the right stuff.

A complete list of what’s needed and where to send it can be found here – things like diapers, blankets, sheets, pillow cases, toiletries and yes, dog food.

Unlike the Hurricane Katrina situation, where people thought they could wait for FEMA and the Red Cross to save the day, neighborhoods and communities have joined forces to begin to do the work themselves. Not to say the FEMA and the Red Cross aren’t doing their thing. They are here. But because the citizens are organized; they’re better able to avoid some of the costly errors made in the past.

They’ve got enough temporary housing, so no trailers are needed this time around. What FEMA IS doing is helping the people with their financial needs, and that’s a big one. In the face of disaster, the bills still keep coming; mortgages and car notes are still due. Many people, sometimes for the first time, will be dealing with insurance claims, contractors, and sadly, funeral homes. These things can be complicated even in normal situations, and the backdrop of a natural disaster complicates the situation even more.

Experts say, when possible, the survivors should get professional help before signing ANY contracts or making long- or short-term financial commitments. If you’re an attorney with a good heart (insert joke here), a financial consultant, a life coach – any professional who can volunteer your time to help people make tough decisions – your help would be appreciated, I’m sure.

The best part about being here firsthand is to witness, not the devastation but the coming together of people – our people – and knowing that they’re on a mission to get back where they were or someplace even better. In Haiti, they had the spirit of doing what’s being done in Alabama, but not the resources, the support or even the infrastructure to get it done. The people of Alabama welcome outside help and need help from volunteers, charitable organizations, etc., but they aren’t sitting idly by waiting for it either.

In one of President Barack Obama’s best campaign speeches, he reminded us that “we are the ones we’ve been waiting for.” Looking to others to lead us, rescue us or save us isn’t enough.

You know the rule around here: No shout outs. But I have to give props to all the volunteers – many who are cute and fine – for all that you’re doing to help. It’s not easy work hard and look good doing it!

I’m from Alabama, and I know that in my community, we depended heavily on neighbors, and that’s what’s happening here now. We understood that when one does better, we all do better. The National Guard is here in Pratt City, but it’s neighbor looking after neighbor that’s been the most effective. The old, “I’ll watch your stuff if you watch mine” system has kept looting to a minimum.

No one who hasn’t experienced it understands what they’re really going through, but one thing for sure: What’s happening here can happen anywhere, and it could be our turn tomorrow.

Seeing people’s personal belongings strewn throughout the lawns and streets says more than I could ever say. Their strength, determination and hope should be an example to all of us.

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9 thoughts on “The Storm’s Silver Lining

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