Ken Hare In Depth: Thousands of heroes respond to crisis

Ken Hare In Depth: Thousands of heroes respond to crisis

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MONTGOMERY, AL (WSFA) -

Amid all the grousing about missed weather forecasts and questionable decision-making by state emergency officials, Alabamians worn down by the weather of the past few days should take a few moments to focus on just how remarkable the people of this state can be in an emergency.

The stories of people helping people are everywhere. When motorists were stranded for hours on ice-slicked and snow-clogged highways, nearby business owners -- and some homeowners -- opened their doors to provide access to warmth and restrooms. Other businesses provided free food. Police and other emergency personnel worked long hours -- many of them through the night -- to rescue stranded motorists. Volunteers braved the ice and cold to help push cars up glassy streets.

But none of these stories, as impressive as they are, outshine the job done by the state's school teachers and administrators who stayed at their posts overnight to protect the more than 11,000 students marooned in dozens of schools by the storm.

Hundreds of teachers, principals and other administrators put their students first, even though I'm sure that many of them ached to be home with their own families.

Some of those school personnel, of course, were trapped at the school along with their students, but most of them chose to be there. And from all I've been able to glean from news coverage, almost to a person those teachers and  administrators stepped up in a big way to keep our children safe, warm and as anxiety-free as possible.

"Everybody's done extremely well," Gov. Robert Bentley told teachers at Birmingham's Glen Iris Elementary School Wednesday afternoon. "You just have to improvise, and when emergency situations come up, you just have to make sure people are taken care of, and that's exactly what you all did."

Perhaps the attitude educators displayed this week can best be personified by the superintendent of the Alabaster City School System, Dr. Wayne Vickers. According to Facebook and Twitter postings by parents of students, he said at the beginning of the emergency: "I'm not going until all of these kids get home."

It was a promise that he, and hundreds of his colleagues at schools across central Alabama, kept.

A check of Facebook and Twitter postings show thousands of postings that praise Alabama school personnel and their response to this crisis.

One typical response read: "Thank you Dr. Vickers and the ACS staff. Not only were the children well taken care of but the parents have been kept well informed. Well done!"

Pardon me a personal aside, but the way our teachers and school administrators handled the situation strikes a strong chord with me because my daughter and son-in-law are both teachers in the Birmingham area.

My daughter left her middle school in the Hoover school system to pick up our 20-month-old granddaughter from daycare. She managed to make it home not only with her child, but with two other children whose parents could not get to their school to pick them up. Meanwhile, her husband, who teaches in the Alabaster system, was trying to drive home to Hoover. The trip of about 14 miles took him about seven hours, and he had to walk the last two miles.

When he finally arrived after dark, my daughter left him in charge of the kids at home  and then walked a mile in the snow to her school to help out with the 140 students stranded there. She didn't stay overnight, but again trudged back to her school the next morning to help relieve the teachers who did spend the night.

Teachers also were the stars of a different kind of heartwarming story in the news Wednesday. According to the Birmingham Business Journal, more than two dozen Teach for America teachers were guests in the fully booked Westin Hotel in Birmingham where they were attending a conference.

But when the lobby filled up with stranded motorists,  the hotel manager said the teachers got together and decided to go three or four to a room, freeing up six rooms for those trying to sleep in the hotel's lobby. Among those receiving room keys from the teachers was a family in Birmingham for their child to receive chemotherapy.  Other rooms were given to an elderly couple who have been stuck in the lobby all day, as well as an 85-year-old woman traveling alone.

Shortly after 6 p.m. Wednesday, State Superintendent of Education Tommy Bice tweeted: "Pleased to report all students are now HOME -- so proud to work with so many heroes --  our public school employees -- mission accomplished!

But educators were far from being the only heroes to step up to help others.

There was Dr. Zenko Hrynkiw, a neurosurgeon who was called to Trinity Medical Center In Birmingham for emergency brain surgery. He walked at least six miles in the snow to perform the surgery, which hospital officials said most likely saved the patient's life.

And there was Vestavia Hills resident Kelly Garner, who disappeared while helping others on U.S. 31 about 7 p.m. Tuesday. His neighbors organized a search for him, and Mike Shofner found him about 8:30 a.m. Wednesday. Garner, a diabetic, had fallen down a ravine and suffered a broken back and head injury. He is in critical condition as of this writing.

There was the manager of a Chick-fil-A restaurant on U.S. 280 in Birmingham, who tried to deliver some food on Tuesday afternoon but couldn't do so because of the logjam of traffic. Rather than see the hot food go to waste, he gave it to stranded motorists. And that gave him an idea: He and his staff cooked about 300 chicken sandwiches for people stuck in their cars after dark. Then Wednesday morning, they were back with a thousand chicken biscuits for stranded motorists and others who had taken refuge in the lobbies of nearby hotels, according to al.com.

When their rooms were fully booked, dozens of motel managers opened their lobbies to people, often distributing pillows and blankets so they could be as comfortable as possible.

Meanwhile, Home Depot outlets from Atlanta to Birmingham opened their doors for marooned motorists, providing a place to stay warm and to sleep. In Birmingham, Home Depot employees walked along highways distributing bottles of water to motorists.

The Trussville Tribune reported that Beverly Elders Cross had never used the four-wheel drive setting on her Chevrolet Suburban until Tuesday, but she put it to great use when, over a six-hour stretch, she transported 104 people from their stalled vehicles to their homes or other safe locations.

The stories on social media sites go on and on: Strangers buying food for strangers, students pushing cars up hills, people with four-wheel-drive vehicles pulling cars out of ditches, people who lived near congested highways baking muffins or taking other food to motorists who had been stuck in their cars for up to a dozen hours.

Of course, longtime Alabamians know people helping people in this state is nothing new. We have seen it following hurricanes and tornadoes time and again. This time the cause of the emergency was ice and snow, but the stories of hospitality and generosity and human spirit are pretty much the same.

Every Alabamian should take a moment to tip their hats to all those teachers and other school personnel who kept our children safe and warm and fed, to all those emergency responders and road crews who worked so hard, and to all those thousands of anonymous citizens who pitched in to help others.

It makes you proud to be an Alabamian.  

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Ken Hare was a longtime Alabama newspaper editorial writer and editorial page editor who now writes a regular column for WSFA's web site. Email him at khare@wsfa.com.

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