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Veterans Health Administration

Tuscaloosa Steps Up to Help Community in Storm’s Aftermath

Man in a suit bends to shake hands with a sitting man

Army Veteran Mark Booth shakes hands with Dr. Robert Petzel, VA’s Under Secretary for Health, during his visit to the medical center on May 4.
Photo by Michelle Lepianka Carter, Tuscaloosa News 

At 5:15 p.m. on Wednesday, April 27, the community of Tuscaloosa, Ala., was struck by a tornado that left a mile-wide swath through the city, killing dozens and injuring hundreds more.

Almost instantly, the Tuscaloosa VA Medical Center (VAMC) became a community shelter. It was also designated by local authorities as the city’s primary morgue.

“How do you comfort a mother who comes in to positively ID her one-year-old child?”

— Connie Booth, Tuscaloosa VA Medical Center

“When we became the primary morgue for the crisis, our staff took up the challenge at once,” said Alan Tyler, the medical center’s director.

“To be honest, some of our people were not prepared, psychologically, to deal with the number and appearance of the bodies — especially the children. But our staff did their jobs and handled themselves like professionals. We functioned as a hospital, a morgue, and a shelter.

We fed people and clothed them, gave them a place to sleep. We tried to comfort them. We did bereavement counseling with all the families who came in to identify their loved ones.”

A woman and others sort clothing at a table

VA staff at the Tuscaloosa VA Medical Center collected and distributed emergency supplies to tornado survivors.

Damon Stevenson, Tuscaloosa VA’s public affairs officer, said one bereavement effort was particularly heart wrenching.

“On April 28 we had two families here at the Tuscaloosa VAMC who were meeting each other for the first time, but under very tragic circumstances,” he reported. “Each family had a daughter attending the University of Alabama. They were roommates. Both died in the storm. The two families came together here, at the Tuscaloosa VA, to comfort one another.”

“It was one of the most emotional events I’ve ever witnessed,” said Daniel Pettey, a patient advocate at the medical center. “The two mothers immediately embraced. They shared an instant, tragic bond. It was witnessing moments like this that that made me realize the reality of the situation we were facing.”

Stevenson said that in addition to displaced families, many local Veterans were brought to the medical center for shelter and care.

“The professionalism I have witnessed from the medical center staff through this horrific event is truly amazing,” he said. “We have employees performing duties that many of them have never been asked to perform. They’ve done so with a sense of duty I can only compare to a battle-tested military unit. One day before the disaster I saw an employee from Human Resources processing paperwork. Today I saw that same employee carrying a body bag.

Cots made up in a large room

The Tuscaloosa VA Medical Center became an emergency shelter for the citizens of Tuscaloosa, Alabama, following the deadly tornados which struck the community.

Laura Balun, director of Voluntary Services at VA, said local volunteers began showing up at the Tuscaloosa VA Medical Center within hours after the tornado struck.

“I’m told that members of Veteran Service Organizations, who volunteer at the medical center, began collecting and delivering donations of clothing, personal care items, and other things needed for citizens who were seeking shelter at the VA,” she explained. “Apparently, baby diapers turned out to be a hot item.”

“At the VA we’ve never needed baby diapers before,” Stevenson said. “But our volunteers stepped up to the plate, as they always do, and had these items to the medical center in record time.

“We are a community,” he added. “We’re just doing our part to assist our community in any way we can.”

Connie Booth, a management analyst at the Tuscaloosa VAMC, said she’s seen ‘some beautiful stories emerge’ in the midst of the carnage, loss, and heartbreak.

“On Thursday morning (April 28) a family arrived at the morgue viewing area to identify their beautiful young 21-year-old daughter,” she explained. “Afterwards, our staffers hugged them, sat with them, held their hands.

“On Friday an elderly gentleman came in to identify his deceased wife,” she continued.

“They had been married 50 years. The staff determined that his wife had sustained major trauma to her face.

“In an effort to lessen this painful process for the husband, our VA photographer took the time to go into the morgue and take very detailed photos of the lady from the neck down. Immediately when the man saw the photos of his wife’s shirt, her ring, a small scar, he was easily able to identify her.

“Thanks to the extra efforts of our staff, an already traumatized individual did not have to suffer through another shock when making a positive identification of his wife’s body.”

“Over and over,” Booth said, “VA staffers who had never worked in a morgue took the time to prepare bodies for viewing by families. They wiped and cleaned and covered bodies to make them more presentable.

“How do you comfort a mother who comes in to positively ID her one-year-old child?” she asked.

“Well, you don’t. You cry with her. But you tell her, ‘I hope it brings you some peace to know that your beautiful little girl has been handled with great care and love while being here with us, and we all truly are grieving with you…”