(Photo: Tiffany Robinson’s home is going up at the site where a tornado destroyed the home she shared with her parents, who were killed in the tornado. Tiffany was badly injured and later learned seven members of her extended family also died that day.)
A total of 23 people were killed on March 3, 2019, when an EF-4 tornado ripped through parts of Lee County, Alabama. The oldest victim was 89. The youngest was only 6 years old.
Steven Griffin was home with his sons A.J. and Jordan as the twister approached. Their mother Kayla was at work, so Steven grabbed both of the boys and huddled with them in a closet. The tornado tore their house to shreds and ripped the boys from Steven’s arms. Jordan, 10, was found nearby with a broken arm and a small skull fracture. A.J.’s body was then found. He was the youngest person killed in the tornado and died instantly according to officials.
It has been a long, emotional journey for the family since March 3, but Steven said that building a new Fuller Center home with the help of volunteers at the 2019 Millard Fuller Legacy Build is a huge step forward.
“We just take it day by day and lean on family and community,” he said. “We know that there’s a bigger plan somewhere for our whole family. That day changed a lot of lives and changed our lives forever. We just try to find every positive thing we can.”
Rachel Wright is a friend of the family. In fact, she is a friend to many of the families impacted by the tornado. A stay-at-home mom, she huddled in the basement of her home and feared the worst. She was thankful to see that they had only lost a portion of the roof on their brick home. When they emerged and heard the sirens and saw the damage around them, she sprung into action. She has not stopped since.
“That’s when it became my full-time job,” Rachel said of her “full-time job” of helping people in any way she can, big or small. “I’m just kind of all over the place. I have a lot of faith, and He did something in me the day after that changed my life forever. It’s by the grace of God that He’s put the right people in the right path. For me, I just feel like I’ve connected a few people. This person needs help and this person offers that help, well, let’s connect them together. That’s what I feel like my role in this has been.”
She was among at least 20 people working alongside Steven on Wednesday. She has been moving from house to house, not wanting to miss a moment of what she calls “happy days.”
“It’s been heavy days, long days and then happy days,” she said. “It’s kind of up and down. The happy days are when you see progress happening like someone’s insurance going through or getting FEMA help or a Fuller Center home. Their lives are coming back together. This gives a huge boost of hope. This is everything they’ve been working toward for months. Every day, they have to get up and put one foot in front of the other.”
Steven purchased this lot a few miles from where their previous home was destroyed and has been working for weeks to prepare the land for this build. They could not bear the thought of rebuilding in the same location where the tornado struck.
“It feels kind of surreal,” he said. “Five weeks ago, this was just dirt. And, today, look at it. We’re super-excited. My son is beyond excited. The people who are out here now are giving their time, which you can’t put a price on. These people are spending time away from their families just to help us, and it’s amazing.”
Andrea & Angela Rivera: Embraced by a community and volunteers
Andrea Rivera lost her mother, and her 17-year-old sister Angela was badly injured in the tornado while Andrea was at work as a care assistant at East Alabama Medical Center. At 21, Andrea found herself homeless and motherless with a sister to take care of. Her bright smile belies her months of suffering and worry.
Fortunately, the entire community has wrapped its arms around these two girls, especially EAMC, which purchased the lots where Andrea and Angela will live in the middle of three adjacent houses— almost as if it is being hugged by the Adams and Johnson families to each side.
Just as the community has taken these girls under its collective wings, so have volunteers at the Legacy Build — perhaps none more so than Riley Belcher, a house co-captain on the Rivera build with Randy Smith.
Riley lives near where the Riveras’ home once stood and sprang into action as part of the search and rescue effort on the day of the tornado. He found Angela amid debris from their destroyed home and feared the worst.
“I came upon Angela, and she was unresponsive,” Riley said. “Another guy and I pulled her out of a hole and thought she was not going to survive. But we got her out and she was breathing and had a good pulse but was unconscious. We loaded her on a closet door we found in the debris, and the Beauregard Fire Department got there with a pickup truck — no ambulances could get to us. We finally got her out and put her on the back of a truck.
“We got her to the fire station, and when we dropped her off, the coroner took his pen out to check her reflexes and she had none,” he continued. “At that moment, I thought she was not going to survive. Come to find out a couple days later from some of her friends that she was in Birmingham and actually doing OK. A few days later that week she got moved to (East Alabama Medical Center) in Opelika, and I was able to see her. That was the first time we really met. I’ve been back and forth since then.”
The girls’ father and their maternal grandmother came from Mexico to help after the tornado, but the grandmother had to return as her visa was set to expire. Her father got an extension on his tourist visa until at least December and is applying for permanent residency. A civil engineer, he cannot work in the United States on his current tourist visa. If their father is forced to return to Mexico, Riley hopes that he can at least feel good knowing that the girls have a good home and many caring friends.
“It means everything, it’s personal,” Riley said of building this home. “To take the destruction of that day, and the tragedy, and the loss that they suffered and be able to give them just a little bit of something, a little bit of hope doesn’t erase what happened, but it is a new beginning for them. It’s a good place to live, it’s a house and it’s something that they can call theirs. I hope it’s special to them. It’s certainly special to us.”
Riley said he will try to hold back the tears when the house is dedicated Friday afternoon but knows it will be an emotional moment. Andrea knows that she will be emotional, but she is quick to smile as much as possible to hide her pain. Her gratitude is effusive, though, for those who have helped her and Angela have a decent place to live.
“It’s amazing,” Andrea said of the Legacy Build volunteers’ efforts before taking a moment to compose herself. “I’m very thankful for them, and I believe that sometimes some things make you stronger. I believe this made us — all of us — stronger. We all came together as a community. It’s amazing. I came here today and saw this house, and I have no words. I couldn’t ever be thankful enough. I could never thank everyone enough for what they’re doing and all of their efforts.”
Tiffany Robinson: Rebuilding at the site of tragedy
Tiffany Robinson understands why some might not want to rebuild their home and their lives on the site of a tragedy. On March 3, she lost her parents when the tornado tore through the home they shared, badly injuring Tiffany, whose leg was crushed in the chaos. She also suffered a back injury, multiple hematomas, two broken fingers and head injuries.
“It was just terrible,” she said of that day. “There’s not even a word to explain how bad it was.”
She does not recall how long she was knocked out that day. The first thing she remembers is a cousin who lived across the street finding her. Beauregard Volunteer Fire Department Chief Mike Holden was not far behind.
“He came out of nowhere,” she said of the chief. “He got me in the back of his truck and took me to the fire station, and they cleared the road to there for the ambulances to come.”
Later, she would learn that the tragic day was even worse than she could have imagined. In addition to her parents, seven members of her extended family in the area also were killed. Even so, Tiffany ultimately decided that she wanted her new Fuller Center home to go up where her old home once stood as a symbol of hope and recovery.
“I fought coming back down here for a long time, and I finally just convinced myself it was the right thing to do,” she said. “I decided at the last minute. I think that’s what my parents would want, and this is where I grew up. I felt like it’s only right.”
She has been working through brutal heat alongside Legacy Build volunteers all week long to make it right.
“I’m thankful for them,” she said of the strangers-turned-friends who have come from across the country — and one from England — to work on her home. “They have taken time out of their lives to help me rebuild mine. Everybody’s been very sweet and very supportive.”