Tornado victims healed by the arts

Pam and John Nero, who lost their home last April 27, examine their new house in Alberta Wednesday afternoon, built by Habitat for Humanity./CW|Megan Smith

Standing at 6’11” 320 pounds was not enough to keep John Nero grounded. As his wife clung to him, roaring winds whipped his legs up from under him, and the murky sky replaced their home’s roof as it flew away. His wife held her embrace as their house was torn apart around them. She held on until the piercing shriek of the winds had passed on down the road.

“I walked out, and it was like a warzone,” Pam Nero said. “We could hear people crying out for help, and we couldn’t get to them. It was a bad feeling. It was an empty feeling. We felt helpless.”

Pam Nero suffered a heart attack and a stroke in the following days, placing her in a wheelchair. The family’s name was passed along to Tuscaloosa Habitat for Humanity as a household in need of support.

On April 27, Pam and John Nero kept their lives but lost their Alberta home. Now, on the anniversary of the devastation, they prepare to move into a new home thanks to the support that has come in many forms and from a variety of places. Much of this relief came from Tuscaloosa’s local musicians, who provided relief aimed to heal and bring together a wounded community.

Through a partnership between Bo Hicks of Wellthatscool.com and Tuscaloosa Habitat for Humanity, the benefit show Tuscaloosa Get Up featured The Alabama Shakes, The Dexateens, Lee Bains III and The Glory Fires. It raised $20,000 for the Nero’s.

“They were great, and we were so shocked to see all the people who came out to support us and help us,” Pam Nero said.

Nero and her husband were in the front row of the Bama Theater for the March 23 show. The emotion of the event overwhelmed her.

“I was breathless,” Nero said. “I was weak. I was crying, but they were tears of joy. I was just so thankful to find out that someone really cared.”

Hicks said it was important to continue supporting the community even a year after the tornado. He believes music to be a powerful, unquantifiable, force to bring people together with a great potential to do good.

“There was just something in the energy of that room that night,” Hicks said. “It was something that’ll probably never be replicated.”

Now, as her home is reconstructed, Pam Nero said she is happy with the builders and volunteers who are working to build her a wheelchair ramp and letting her pick out colors for the home. She remains grateful to the workers and extends an offer of hospitality hoping to repay their generosity.

“I’m still getting calls from people asking to help us, and all I can say is thank you,” Nero said. “I tell them, this is your home now too. You remember that.”

Volunteer and project director for Tuscaloosa Habitat for Humanity, Jared Patterson, has overseen the efforts of Habitat and local volunteers that have directly impacted more than 15 families around the Tuscaloosa area. Donated funds provided newly constructed homes for some and exterior repairs or facelifts for others through their Brush With Kindness restoration initiative.

Patterson learned about the Wellthatscool show after moving in next door to Bo Hicks. They worked together on Tuscaloosa Get Up and decided to dedicate the show to the Nero family. Patterson said the strength of the Southern music community, the bands and the location all added to the event’s success.

Construction on their new home began a week and a half before the show and brought out 80 to 90 volunteers every day in March, nearly twice the normal number of volunteers on a build. Now, a year after the tornado, the house is nearly complete, and Patterson expects to dedicate the house in the first week of May.

“In just a little over a year to go from their house to a brand new house across the street is really something,” Patterson said. “It’s something beautiful.”

Though proud of Habitat’s work and the construction of the Nero home, Patterson expressed that the citywide destruction isn’t something that can be repaired in a matter of weeks or a year. He said it is a process that must not slow down to get the community back in order. He believes the strength of benefits, such as Tuscaloosa Get Up, are why the art will be a strong part of the city’s future.

Other musical or artistic fundraising efforts have been visible across the state since last April. Most notably Birmingham’s BJCC Arena hosted the Bama Rising benefit concert last June. The show featured country superstars such as Alabama and Rodney Atkins, raising $818,000.

The Tuscaloosa Amphitheater also hosted a number of benefit concerts. Kenny Chesney, Alabama, Pretty Lights and My Morning Jacket all played shows throughout the year that raised money for tornado relief. Across Tuscaloosa, bars and venues took part in the Roll Tide Relief Benefit Concert last June, which included a variety of local musicians.

“Music and art have always been the greatest form of expression,” Patterson said. “When you have great musicians with such a strong following — when they speak, people tend to hear the message a lot clearer.”