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Rebuilding Tuscaloosa: Life after the tornadoes

By Julie Hays, CNN
updated 10:25 AM EDT, Fri April 27, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Deadly tornadoes ripped through Alabama one year ago, destroying thousands of homes
  • Leah Bromley started Rebuild Tuscaloosa to connect those in need with those who can help
  • Bromley: I want people to remember us and understand there is still a really great need

(CNN) -- One year ago Leah Bromley was at her New York City apartment when she got a text from her mother in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. It read "I'm in the basement. I love you."

"I immediately got very frantic," Bromley says.

It was early in the morning on April 27, 2011, and the first round of severe weather was rolling through her hometown. Thankfully the early storms only knocked the power out and downed some trees near her childhood home, but she was glued to the television for the rest of the day as the threat of tornadoes persisted.

"These massive storms were coming across the south, and I saw pictures of them. It was very scary looking," she says. "It was coming for Tuscaloosa."

Severe weather continued to rip through the South and Midwest that day, killing at least 327 people. It was one of the deadliest tornado outbreaks in U.S. history.

Alabama was the hardest hit state and Tuscaloosa was in the bull's-eye of the storm. More than 5,000 homes in Tuscaloosa alone were damaged or destroyed and hundreds of businesses in the area were also impacted, according the West Alabama Chamber of Commerce.

"It looked like a giant bomb went off, and that's when I knew. I felt helpless, and I knew I wanted to do something," Bromley says.

It started with a single, successful fundraiser in New York. After that Bromley started a Facebook page called Rebuild Tuscaloosa.

"I reposted something that another page had posted saying that Lowe's has tarps, and I received a post maybe 20 minutes later on our page telling me Lowe's is out of tarps. I immediately felt awful because I wasted that person's time," she says. "It just became very apparent that it was necessary to provide a credible source of information for volunteers and for the people that were affected."

As Leah managed the page from New York with help from her mother on the ground in Tuscaloosa, Rebuild Tuscaloosa quickly became a hub for connecting people in need with the supplies and organizations that could help them, people like Stephannie Nixon.

Stephannie Nixon\'s house was destroyed in the April 27, 2011 tornado outbreak.
Stephannie Nixon's house was destroyed in the April 27, 2011 tornado outbreak.

"I didn't think for a long time about what to do," says Nixon, whose home was destroyed. "I couldn't handle it. It was just too much."

"[Rebuild Tuscaloosa] took my life personally, and that was very important. That was life saving. That gave me the energy to keep going to the next step," she says.

A year later after the immediate emergency needs of victims and volunteers have faded away, the mission of Rebuild Tuscaloosa has not changed.

Rebuild Tuscaloosa still has an active Facebook community that works to identify ongoing needs and fulfill them. Bromley and other volunteers regularly deliver donated furniture and household items to families trying to rebuild.

"I just really want people to remember us and to understand that there is still a really great need," Bromley says. "We have barely scraped the surface of rebuilding and there are still a lot of people who need a lot of help."

Rebuild Tuscaloosa works with a variety of groups involved in the rebuilding and re-housing efforts in Tuscaloosa. For a list of these and other disaster relief organizations at work in Alabama, visit Impact Your World at CNN.com/Impact.

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