Why Do We Share Disaster Survivor Stories?

Tornado survivor Martha Hall, 65, had no time to escape her house in West Liberty, Kentucky, on March 2, 2012. "We heard the roaring," says Hall. "It kept going and going and never stopped."

“…the brain prioritizes stories over statistics, and the more personalized the stories, the more powerful the imprint,” writes TIME contributor Amanda Ripley in her introduction to the magazine’s current special issue Time: Disasters that Shook the World. “…there is great practical value in telling stories, particularly when they are told with useful lessons attached.”

The TIME special issue marks the 100th anniversary of the RMS Titanic sinking on April 15, 1912. New research continues to teach us more about how the accident happened and why many died. Much of what we know—and what moves us emotionally to take action—comes from disaster survivor stories.

In this corner, covered with a mattress and blankets, Martha Hall and her brother survived the the tornado. "It went BOOM," says Hall. "We could feel the house move."

The Red Cross knows this. We provide essential disaster relief to the most vulnerable among us. During relief response, we have the privilege of serving as listeners while people talk to us about remarkable acts of courage, strength, and resilience. We share their stories because personal accounts inspire you to give money for disaster relief, to take steps for being prepared for emergencies, and to become a Red Cross volunteer who makes disaster relief happen.

Red Cross disaster relief worker Anita Foster hugs Martha Hall, who was recovering personal items from her home destroyed by the March 2 tornado in West Liberty, Kentucky.

During this time of remembering the Titanic, we encourage you to continue to learn about people affected by disasters here and around the world. Additional ready resources include redcross.org, ifrc.org, and icrc.org.

Post and images by Lynette Nyman, American Red Cross. Amanda Ripley is the author of The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes–and Why.

West Liberty Relying on Red Cross After Tornado

West Liberty, Kentucky
A devastating tornado wiped out much of West Liberty, Kentucky, a mountain town of around 3200 people. Dozens are now relying on Red Cross disaster services. Photo credit: Lynette Nyman/American Red Cross

For some, the Red Cross shelter in West Liberty, Kentucky, is the only home they have. “Without the Red Cross,” says Stacy LeMaster, 26, “we would be on the street.”

Since the March 2 tornado hugged the ground, wiping out dozens of homes and businesses in West Liberty, Stacy, her husband, and their three children have sought refuge at the shelter where everybody knows everybody. “This is just like home,” says Daniel.

Daniel LeMaster and his son, West Liberty, Kentucky
Daniel LeMaster and his son Daniel 3, are relying on the Red Cross shelter for safe and warm refuge after a tornado hit West Liberty, Kentucky, on March 2. Photo credit: Lynette Nyman/American Red Cross

Disaster relief workers from around the region are providing essential services to more than 50 people seeking refuge in the shelter. The shelter is also an assistance station for dozens more staying with family and friends, but who are otherwise homeless.

Shelter operations manager Brad Powell says Red Cross relief teams are also in the community. “We have relief workers doing damage assessment and mass feeding,” says Powell.

Some of the relief workers at the shelter have had little sleep, including Breck Hensley, 16, who has friends affected by the tornado. He says being a Red Cross volunteer is a good experience. “I’m just trying to help all those people who need it because if I were them, I would want it,” says Hensley.

Breck Hensley, Red Cross Disaster Volunteer
Breck Hensley, 16, who has friends affected by the March 2 tornado that hit West Liberty, Kentucky, says being a Red Cross disaster relief worker is a good experience. Photo credit: Lynette Nyman/American Red Cross

People in West Liberty are likely to rely on the Red Cross shelter for many more days as the slow process of tornado recovery takes its turn.

Tornado changes lives, not souls, in West Liberty, Kentucky

West Liberty, Kentucky, a small mountain town, was turned upside down when a powerful tornado went through Friday, March 2. Walking around, checking in with affected families, it’s easy to learn that everybody knows somebody whose life was changed that afternoon, including David May, who was scheduled to preach before the tornado hit.

David May, 59, believes that hope and character will come from the suffering brought upon the people of West Liberty, Kentucky, by the March 2 tornado. Photo credit: Lynette Nyman/American Red Cross

“People said no one would come,” says May. Four people showed up for services on Sunday morning and stood near what’s left of West Liberty Christian Church. “The building is gone, but the church is still there,” says May. Fortunately for May, he has a place to stay over the hill, an area that was spared from destruction.

But his childhood home, like that of many here, will not be habitable for a long time, if ever. “The town is probably over,” says May, who expects that the old people won’t be back. If he had small children, he’d move them out. “This devastation and the shock and the work that’s to be done, well, I’d take them to another town for a while.”

Four people attended Sunday services outside the building remains of West Liberty Christian Church in Kentucky following the tornado on March 2. Photo credit: Lynette Nyman/American Red Cross
Four people attended Sunday services outside the building remains of West Liberty Christian Church in Kentucky following the tornado on March 2. Photo credit: Lynette Nyman/American Red Cross

It’s only a few days into the recovery and many still have no idea what they can keep or rebuild. Even May, whose church recently donated a bus and supplies to ongoing earthquake recovery in Haiti, has a touch of hope that the homeland he loves and has lived in all of his life will find a fresh start.

“I’d like to see us start over,” says May. “Maybe we will.”

If you would like to help people affected by disasters like tornadoes and floods, you can make a donation to support American Red Cross Disaster Relief by visiting http://www.redcrossmn.org, calling 1-800-RED CROSS (1-800-733-2767) or texting the word REDCROSS to 90999 to make a $10 donation. Contributions may also be sent to your local Red Cross chapter or to the American Red Cross, P.O. Box 37243, Washington, DC 20013.

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