By Jackie HOUCHIN
When Tim Morelli, owner of Bonner’s Equipment Rental in Tujunga, got a call from his friend Rhett Walker asking him to join a volunteer team headed to Alabama to help tornado victims, he quickly agreed. Less than 48 hours later he was winging his way to the disaster area with nine other men: most in the construction trade, a few paramedics, one doctor.
“I don’t know what to expect,” Morelli said as he rushed to take care of last minute tasks the day before leaving. “I’ve never done anything like this before. I just know that a couple guys from ‘Reach Out’ left yesterday, driving a truck with equipment and small demolition tools. We’ll do whatever we can to help.”
“Reach Out World Wide” (ROWW) is a quick-response organization specializing in rescue and recovery. Founded in 2010 after the devastating earthquake in Haiti by film actor Paul Walker (Rhett’s nephew) and a group of friends with EMT and paramedic training, the organization acts as first responders in the U.S. and abroad to bring hope and aid to disaster victims. A growing database of qualified volunteers who agree to be on standby makes this possible.
Lucas Wimer, a former Shadow Hills resident familiar with the construction business, took care of the logistics for the trip, immediately sending two people to Alabama to connect with locals, assess the situation, and see what was needed.
Medical assistance was already provided by local hospitals. What they needed most was help in removing hundreds of toppled trees from homes, demolishing those beyond help, and cleaning up debris. Wimer sent the truck loaded with tools and supplies, mobilized a team, and arranged for flights.
On Wednesday morning, May 4, less than a week after the tornados struck, the local “demo team” was off.
A week later the four volunteers – now best friends – were still pumped and eager to tell about their experience. They all said they felt a feeling of accomplishment, happy that what they did there affected so many. The volunteers were amazed at how resilient those were who had lost their homes.
“Alabama is in the Bible Belt of America,” Morelli said, “a bunch of churches aided by Billy Graham’s Samaritan’s Purse, set up to do relief at the First Baptist Church in Tuscaloosa. They sent us to Holt where the Body of Christ Church, which was untouched by the tornado, gave us a local person to take us to the sites where we were to work.” The guidance was needed as tornados took out the street signs.
“It felt good to help,” said local foothills Bobcat operator Anthony “Anchovy” Lovdokken, who helped to clear 15 lots in trailer parks. Most were senior citizens on fixed incomes whose insurance didn’t cover removal of fallen trees and debris. “We helped them get back into their homes,” said Lovdokken.
Rhett Walker, owner of Rhett’s Home Remedies in Tujunga, was inspired by his nephew’s work. He joined the Alabama team and recruited Morelli.
Unfortunately on the first day of work while cutting tree limbs off a house, Rhett fell through a roof and broke his ankle. That didn’t stop him, however; he operated a backhoe, gave advice on technical cuts on roofs, and drove the truck with tools to the jobsites.
“I want to do it again,” he said, trying to ignore his crutches and upcoming surgery. “I plan to take Search & Rescue and Red Cross classes. I want to be prepared to go again.”
The other first-time team members vowed the same thing.
Severe storms wreaked havoc across the Southeast on April 25-28, spawning tornadoes that wiped out thousands of homes and businesses. More than 340 people were killed in seven states, including at least 238 in Alabama, making it the deadliest tornado outbreak in the U.S. since 1925.
For information on ROWW go to http://www.roww.org/.