Wood Manor community ready to move on

Wood+Manor+community+ready+to+move+on

Jason Galloway

Neighbors Sam Rombokas and Modell Hawkins used to wave at each other across the street and talk about why Rombokas’ grass always looks better than Hawkins’.

“As soon as the weather looks good, you’ve got to scalp it,” he’d tell her.

Now, after perhaps the worst weather their town has ever seen, their conversations will center around which possessions ended up in each other’s rubble-laden homes and where they can find volunteer-made burgers.

Rombokas and Hawkins resided in Wood Manor, one of many communities off Hargrove Road that Wednesday’s EF-5 tornado did not spare.

“It’s just stuff. I keep telling myself it’s just stuff,” Hawkins said. “You’re alive. That’s what counts.”

Hawkins was lucky to have been visiting a doctor in New Orleans, where she lived for 27 years, when the storm hit. In 2005, she evacuated from Hurricane Katrina and returned to the Gulf to find her house just three blocks from where the flooding had stopped.

In Tuscaloosa, she wasn’t so lucky. Rombokas, who has been an alumnus of Alabama for nearly 40 years, was actually the one who called her Wednesday night to break the heart-breaking news.

“I was seriously sick at my stomach,” Hawkins said. “Just a big knot because I had no idea if there was anything left.”

Her house is now simply a pile of wood and bricks. She found her mattress hundreds of feet away from her property, and the tornado carried some of her possessions much farther.

“I actually had a guy call me and said he found a ziplock bag with some [of my] prescriptions and some receipts in his yard in Birmingham,” she said.

Rombokas’ house, even more by chance, was also empty when the storm hit. His daughter and baby granddaughter were scheduled to fly into Huntsville that night but got redirected to Birmingham because of the storms.

Rombokas’ wife was in Huntsville to pick them up, and his daughter needed more formula to feed her baby, so Rombokas had to make the trip to Birmingham. They would have all arrived back at the house before the tornado swallowed it up, but his daughter wanted to wait for the car seat in her mother’s car.

After the storm passed through, Rombokas’ brother-in-law, Bill Massengale, called him to tell him what happened to his house.

“It was hard for him to say,” Rombokas said. “At first is was, ‘Your house took a hit. It’s pretty bad.’ Then it turned into, ‘It’s totally devastated. It’s destroyed. There’s nothing left.’

“It was even worse than what I thought [when we got back].”

After the storm hit, there was a time for shock, a time to be still and wonder why this happened. But on Sunday, four days after the disaster, Rombokas’ and Hawkins’ properties were filled with people they didn’t even know helping dig up whatever they could salvage.

Next door to Hawkins, at what’s left of the Central Church of Christ, a line of Disaster Assistance Church of Christ volunteers worked quickly to organize and deliver meals to victims and give away supplies and clothes to those who lost everything.

“It’s incredible,” Hawkins said. “I was living in New Orleans and evacuated from Katrina. I went back down there, and there was a lot of support down there, but I have to say, in some degrees, I don’t think near as much as what I’ve seen here.”

The volunteers next door scrambled to help out under blazing heat. Many of them were not personally affected by the storm. For them, that doesn’t matter.

“No, that’s not necessary,” one of the them said to a reporter after being asked for her name. “We’re just here to volunteer and help out.”

The Rombokas family took a small break from cleaning Sunday afternoon. Sam Rombokas set up a camera facing where the frame of their front door still stands. His wife, two children and grandchild shifted together in front of what was left of their house while he set the timer on the camera.

A wide smile stretched onto Sam’s daughter as she pet her baby’s head. His wife and son followed suit as they watched the baby smile back, and before the camera was even ready, the entire family was beaming in front of their destroyed home. They had lost everything but still had each other.

“We’re over the pity party and moving on,” Rombokas said.