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Two tornado-wracked towns unite through tragedy, charity

By Michael Martinez, CNN
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Joplin can see future in Tuscaloosa
  • A tornado hits Tuscaloosa, Alabama, in April
  • The residents in and around Joplin, Missouri, provide aid
  • Then the nation's deadliest twister devastates Joplin in May
  • In a reversal of fortunes, Tuscaloosa sends aid to Joplin

(CNN) -- This is a tale of two cities tied together by two tornadoes of the most wicked order, the apocalyptic EF-5 -- and by acts of charity that followed. It demonstrates how one good turn -- or town -- deserves another.

First, the town of Tuscaloosa, Alabama, got hit by a twister on April 27, killing 41.

So, like many others across the country, the residents in and around Joplin, Missouri, dispatched volunteers and relief goods to the Alabama community.

Melodie Schultz of Joplin even participated in a fund-raiser.

"I got involved just by seeing that they needed the help in Tuscaloosa, and a friend of mine started just a group of us: 'Joplin Helping Tuscaloosa, Alabama,' " Schultz told CNN.

Pastor Matt Harenza of Carterville Christian Church in Carthage, Missouri, just 16 miles from Joplin, donated manpower to the Tuscaloosa wreckage.

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"When the tornado happened in Tuscaloosa, a sister church there in Nashville (Tennessee) called and asked if we could bring our team to Tuscaloosa and help out," said Harenza. "So we got our team and got our tools and stuff and went down there to help out."

Then, a month later, fortunes between the Tuscaloosa and Joplin were reversed.

The single deadliest U.S. twister since modern record-keeping began in 1950 ripped through Joplin, killing 142 persons. It, too, was an EF-5.

So the people of Tuscaloosa and elsewhere in Alabama returned Joplin's favor.

A truckload of water, diapers, baby food and other relief materials arrived Saturday for the people of Joplin, and the goods were being stored in a warehouse at Harenza's church because Joplin is too obliterated to house the supplies.

The donations were delivered courtesy of the relief group Toomer's for Tuscaloosa and Ashley Furniture HomeStore of Birmingham, Alabama, said Chris Fields, a spokesman for Toomer's.

"Sunday afternoon, we saw on the Weather Channel that there was a storm that was about to hit Joplin, and we wondered why we recognized that name so well," Fields said.

"We realized why we recognized it," he said. Joplin residents "sent down a giant truck of aid for the residents of Tuscaloosa," he said.

So, the residents of Tuscaloosa and other parts of Alabama donated enough goods to fill two 53-foot trucks and a 26-foot truck, Fields said.

The 26-foot truck, with a Toomer's banner saying "Stuff-The-Truck. Joplin, Mo bound," was eventually diverted to another tornado-wracked community in Arkansas, but the two bigger trucks continued on their mission to provide relief to Joplin, Fields said.

Fields was amazed at the outpouring of support for Joplin, with donations arriving by the pickup load, leaving him in tears, he said.

"These people have been through it and they know exactly what to bring," from flashlights to batteries to baby bottles, Fields said of Tuscaloosa residents' donations.

"It is part of our healing process to help someone who has been through the exact same thing that we had been through. That's why so many people stepped up to the plate," Field said.

"This movement is so large, so many people stepping up as individuals taking care of their neighbors, it's a beautiful, beautiful thing to happen in this country," Fields added.

For Schultz's part, she was volunteering for a Tuscaloosa fund-raiser in Joplin on the very day that the tornado ripped through her Missouri town, she said.

In dramatic fashion, she raised money by doing mini-photo shoots and managed to do 20 of them before disaster struck Sunday, she said.

"We managed to make it to safety probably five or 10 minutes before the tornado hit," Schultz said.

Tuscaloosa's mutual humanitarianism moved her, she said.

"They just want to do whatever they can to help us, which is amazing to me. They've gone through the exact same thing, not even a month ago, and are so willing to send truckloads of food and anything that we need down here, and they're happy to do it," Schultz said. "They've got our backs, and they're completely supportive."

Harenza, the pastor, said seeing the truckload of donations from Tuscaloosa was "an emotional thing." Similar trucks from around the country arrived in Tuscaloosa during his volunteer efforts there last month, he said.

"You just go, 'Wow, people care about people,' and this tragedy almost pulls us together as a nation," Harenza said.

Said Fields: "It's supernatural what has happened here as far as I'm concerned."

CNN's Chris Turner and Emily Robards contributed to this report.