Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Mama, I'm Hungry (Part 1)

Growing up in Houston, my brothers and I experienced the the aftermath of many a hurricane. Even for a child, having no water or power for weeks at a time is grueling. The standard drill was Baptist pallets down a long narrow hallway common to most 1970's ranchers.

In Birmingham, basements are pretty standard unless you reside in tract housing or garden homes on concrete slabs. Even the smallest and oldest homes here sit on at least a crawl space. Finding a safe place for us generally includes a set-up downstairs with chairs, bedding and flashlights.

Oh, how I love a good rain and the sound of distant thunder. Before last Wednesday, bad weather had never been much of a concern for me.

Wednesday morning, we received early reports of downed trees all around us, many without power and the threat of school and businesses closing by mid-day. It seems the Governor had issued a State of Emergency for Alabama citing the worst was yet to come. I studied on and off  most of the day to the sound of distant chain saws with little worry.

Our youngest daughter, Kate, is finishing her Freshman year at the University in Tuscaloosa which is  just 40 minutes away from us and as the crow flies, a straight shot home for her here in western Jefferson County. Generally, any storm coming from the west passes through Tuscaloosa county and we are generally on the receiving end within the hour.

We talk to Kate several times a day. Generally a call from her on the way to class, sometimes on the way back to the dorm, often before lights out. A reflection on her day, a catch-up of events around here or just a courtesy call to assure us that our chick is in a nest (somewhere).

A good friend called early in the afternoon to say she was heading our way to ride out the Wednesday afternoon storms as there were reports of no power at her home for at least another 24 hours. It was not uncomfortably warm out, but the threat of no power, television or internet more than justified their visit.

Sometime between her call and arrival, I had myself worked up to near hysteria.

Glued to the television in the den with the back door open to the deck, I paced (wilder than wild) while watching the F4 tornado speed straight toward the University of Alabama campus. Kate and a few of her closest friends were in the stairwell on the second floor in Blount's Living Learning dorm. With sketchy cell service, we made a plan to either stay on the phone together during the storm or exchange text messages at 5-minute intervals.

Every other communications devise in our home was exploding with friends and family reaching out to make sure she was in a safe place, as everyone we knew appeared to be watching the same horrific detail. Forget any commentary from newscasters reporting that UA would be a direct hit, the visuals alone were hard to process.

This pretty much sums up that period of time:

From our perspective, it appeared the funnel cloud was within 200 yards of the stadium when we lost the video feed and simultaneously lost cell coverage with Kate and poof, she was gone. It would be some 12 minutes before we received a random text from an unknown number with, "I'm OK."

It appeared the University was spared and except for power in their building, all was well. Our last communication with her was on Facebook as laptop and cell phones were running out of juice with no way to recharge. We decided to maintain as much battery life as possible and sign off for the night.

Up early Thursday morning, my plan was to prepare food for her and deliver several meals to get her through a long weekend of studying in preparations for finals. After finally chatting with her on the computer about 9:00 am, it was confirmed that classes had been canceled Thursday, but the rest of week, weekend and following week were still as planned. At 9:30 am she sent me a message, "That sounds good, mama. But, I'm hungry." With a campus-wide power outage, dining would be a problem, therefore my plan to prepare a few meals for her seemed the right thing to do.

It is not uncommon for Kate to take home cooked meals back with her to heat up and very often there is enough to share with her dorm mates who do not get home as often. How then could I feed her without feeding her friends? No problem, I would prepare for at least 10. Oh my, how then could I prepare for 10 without preparing for at least those in her dorm building? 

That's when things got a little crazy:
  • By 10:00 am, I had received two calls. Merry Margaret Coggins and Valerie Springer
  • By 10:10 am, it was decided that we would gather supplies to feed 40-50 students and deliver
  • By 11:00 am, Facebook posts were flying
  • At noon, we had amassed 40 cases of water (Costco and Walmart) two trays of sandwiches from Imperial Catering, 100 hot dogs and $100 gift card from another Walmart
  • By 1:00 pm, Erin Dunavant ramped us up with Quiznos with a challenge to buy ready made sandwiches (200 in all)
  • By 1:15 pm, Tazikis had donated 90 chicken roll-ups and 270 more as our friends were calling in orders there (Harbins, Lindsey Hill). Joe's Italian was preparing a large pan of Rigatoni, PF Chang's lo mien, and Chuy's would be throwing in chips and dip
  • With Wade scheduled to pick up water, it was decided that he would spend the $100 gift card buying Pop-Tarts and breakfast foods
  • Merry Margaret would pick up the sandwiches, after coordinating pick-ups in Riverchase - more water and gift cards
  • Pay-Pal payments from our personal friends coming in from Jim Popper and Karen Douglas for ice and paper goods, cookies, crackers, fruit, etc.

At 3:00 pm, parked in our scheduled meeting place, a gentleman rode up and handed me a sack of homemade sandwiches, a sack of Chick-File, 3 cases of water, a bag of oranges and a box of chips. Lori Sullivan had posted our efforts on a local television blog site. Merry Margaret, Wade, Valerie, Lori, Sierra, Luis, Michelle and I loaded two vehicles to capacity. At 3:44 pm, we were on our way.

I suppose you don't think about it, you just do it. Personally, I had seen no television coverage during the day on Thursday while manning the phones and computer and perhaps that could have changed the momentum. This day, 3 middle-aged mamas never considered an alternative or warnings to stay away.

Our baby girl was safe and I now know other parents who went through the same 30-minute gut wrenching ordeal. We know of parents who lost their babies and cannot imagine it. How grateful we are that Kate came home with us Thursday night and is at this very moment is sleeping in her own bed.

There is more to this saga, but it is time to feed the monsters. How did we get there and how did we get in with so many obstacles and so many trying to thwart our ambition?

What she said and what I heard was, "Mama, I'm hungry." 
What my friends heard was, "Mama, we're hungry."

In less than 5 hours, a double handful of people fed a dinner and a breakfast to 500 students, rescue personnel and storm victims in the student rec, along 15th Street and Alberta City.

This random act of kindness would have been absolutely impossible without the help and love of our closest friends. A special thanks to:

Merry Margaret Coggins
Valerie Springer
Lynn Morrison
Clay and Julie Harbin
Erin Dunavant
Lori Sullivan
Lindsey Hill
Debbie McCorkle
Kelsey Crumpton
Michaela Haynie
Wade Brantley
Michelle Gill
Sonia Bertolone (Joe's Italian)
Celia and Peggy Turner (Imperial Catering)
Jim Popper
Karen Douglas
PF Chang's
Walmart - Bessemer and Pelham
Costco - Hoover
Bill Bailey
(Please advise and my sincerest apologies if I've omitted your name)


My name is Rhonda Brantley and my husband, Billy Ray Brantley suffers from Early Onset Alzheimer's Dementia. This is the best shot we have at documenting daily living.

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