Posted At: April 12, 2012 3:15 PM
by Katie Kallam
On April 27, 2011, one of the deadliest tornado outbreaks in history ravaged the state of Alabama. Homes were destroyed; lives were lost; and the world looked on. The media outpouring following the event was overwhelming. News media from across the nation and even the world flocked to the small Southern state to catch a glimpse of the damage that had occurred. Public figures from President Barack Obama to Charlie Sheen helped shed attention on the needs of the people of Alabama.
On April 27, 2012, a very different picture will be seen across the state of Alabama. Damage still remains as residents drive to their everyday jobs, passing naked trees and flattened landscapes. The national media has moved on to newer stories. Public figures have found a different cause to support. But the need is still great. Homes are still destroyed; the tragedy is still fresh in the community’s collective hearts; and yet the world has forgotten.
As the anniversary of the Alabama tornadoes approaches, the city of Tuscaloosa is planning a memorial service not only to remind the residents of the community the hardship and tragedy they have endured, but also to remind the world that Alabama is still here.
City leaders face a distinct public relations challenge following community tragedies. They must acknowledge and honor the tragedy that has occurred while remaining relevant to national media, even years after the event. But just what are they communicating through these anniversary services? Do they serve as reminders and opportunities for communities to mourn? Are they a last ditch effort for media attention? Just what effect do they have on the memory of these community tragedies?
“We hope that the service will be a time of reflection as we remember those that were lost in the storm and recognize the unsung heroes of our recovery efforts,” Meredith Lynch, public relations coordinator for the city of Tuscaloosa said. “While we have made a substantial amount of progress since the storm, we still have a long journey ahead. As we continue to rebuild and renew our community, we are determined to do so in a way that honors those who have lost so much.”
Lynch believes that last year’s tornadoes have made a lasting impact on the community.
“I believe that the entire Tuscaloosa community was forever changed on April 27th. I hope that the service will put into perspective just a fraction of how many people were impacted by the events of that day. And show the nation that we are a resilient city that will never forget,” Lynch said.
Lynch said that the city plans to honor the anniversary of the tornadoes with a community memorial service to be held in Coleman Coliseum that will include a time of remembrance at 5:13 p.m., the exact time the tornado touched down in Tuscaloosa, as well as video tributes to first responders and the community effort following the disaster.
The city will also be partnering with The University of Alabama in its Day of Service to be held the Saturday preceding April 27. The two events will serve as bookends to a full Week of Remembrance.
Lynch said that the city will be reaching out not only to local, community media to raise awareness of the event but also to national contacts.
This story, however, does not end in Tuscaloosa, Ala. A few states west in Joplin, Mo., city leaders are preparing for a one-year anniversary memorial service following the devastating tornadoes that ripped through their town on May 22, 2011.
“The central idea for the one-year anniversary is for our citizens, families, neighbors and volunteers alike to return to that part of Joplin where they were one year ago,” Joplin Convention and Visitors Bureau Director Patrick Tuttle said. “Not to relive the moments of that day, but rather to reconnect with each other where neighborhoods stood. The hope is to reconnect with each other, with friends, emergency responders, folks from nearby communities or possibly those individuals who we may have met for the first time a year ago or in the days of recovery that followed.”
The city of Joplin is planning a Walk of Unity across the most affected and devastated areas of the community. The Walk of Unity will consist of three major stops, and all members of the community are encouraged to participate.
The first stop will be a nondenominational service at the LDS Joplin Center to remind community members of the faith that keeps them strong. The second stop will be at the existing existing high school soccer field and will have a groundbreaking ceremony for the new Joplin High School. This stop will remind community members of the hope they have in the future generation of Joplin residents. The final stop will be at the base of a cross, where St. Mary’s Catholic Church once stood, and an event in memory of children lost in the tornado will be held to symbolize the loss of innocence one year ago.
City leaders hope that this Day of Unity will serve as both somber closure and an optimistic look to the future for the citizens of Joplin.
“The Day of Unity is designed to provide various opportunities for those wanting, and possibly needing, a time to come together and remember and reflect, as well as to look to the future for continued recovery,” Joplin Public Information Officer Lynn Onstot said.
Tuttle said that he hoped that the events of the day would also serve as an opportunity to recognize the individuals who tirelessly worked following the tornado.
“We are a strong community and we want to show what can be accomplished when people work together. This is also a time for us to say thank you to the 126,000+ volunteers who have given what we will for some time serve to repay,” Tuttle said.
In addition, community tragedies give these cities the chance to serve as a comfort to those experiencing for the first time what they know all too well.
“At this time, the city of Joplin is working together in reaching out to those communities who have asked for our story, what lessons we learned, and how they could be better prepared if such a devastating event occurs in their city,” Onstot said. “In addition, we are in contact with some of the cities who have unfortunately found themselves in a similar situations from the recent spring storms that hit Illinois, Kentucky, Texas and other states, including our own state when Branson, Mo., was recently hit by a tornado.”
There is precedent to be examined when planning these anniversary services. Memorial services are continuing to be held following significant community tragedies such as the Virginia Tech shooting, the Oklahoma City bombing of 1995 and most notably the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
So at what point do these communities begin to move on from the tragedy? According to a USAToday article, students at Virginia Tech University will attend classes this April 16, the five-year anniversary of the deadliest mass school shooting in modern U.S. history. This will be the first time in five years that students have attended classes on that day.
“Time is a great healer,” Edward Spencer, Virginia Tech vice president for student affairs, said to USAToday. “You don’t ever totally heal. But time helps some.”
But Jonathan Nelson, a 2010 graduate of Virginia Tech and survivor of the 2007 shooting, has mixed feelings on the subject.
“Since I was there I couldn’t imagine going to class on that day and would rather spend it in remembrance,” Nelson said. “With that being said, apart from faculty and staff, most students who were there in 2006 have graduated and are gone; thus, the current student body didn’t experience the tragedy firsthand, and an entire day off may be viewed as a fun day rather than a day of remembrance . . . Life has to go on. If the campus shut down for a month each April, it would be less productive and in many ways dishonor the individuals who died and were there for educational purposes; it would also mark a lack of having moved forward.”
Virginia Tech, however, will continue to memorialize the tragedy through hosting a 3.2 mile Run in Remembrance of the 32 victims killed and a candle-lighting ceremony.
There will always be a more recent news story or cause for celebrities to get behind, but the impact of community tragedies remains on the hearts of the people who experience them forever. It is important for community leaders to be aware of the needs of the community and recognize and acknowledge what has affected so many.