The 2011 Tornadoes: Cross-country Help

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Donations and volunteers have poured into Alabama as communities work to rebuild from last month’s tornados. Some are here through established organizations such as the Red Cross. Others from the Gulf Coast helped out, saying they’re giving back because of what they received after Hurricane Katrina. But for two California nurses, they never imagined they’d find themselves in the thick of the response. WBHM’s Andrew Yeager has their story.

Donna Drugatz can’t really explain it. She woke up with the name “Pleasant Grove” in her head. For several days she didn’t know what it meant.

“Finally my husband yelled one night, ‘Donna! Donna! Come here! Look at this.’ And it was a reporter saying that Pleasant Grove, Alabama, was ground zero for the tornado. And I said to him, ‘That’s it!. That’s where I’m supposed to go.'”

Drugatz lives a bit north of San Diego and has never been to Alabama. She’s a registered nurse but never responded to a disaster. Her husband wasn’t keen on the idea. He agreed though if she didn’t go alone. So Drugatz called Denise Jessup. They’ve been friends for more than 20 years, since meeting in nursing school.

“And I came over to visit and, you know, she’s laying in her pajamas and all this and we’re like…”

“Ready for a road trip? She said, ‘Where are we going?’ And I said, ‘Alabama!’ And she said, ‘Alabama?’ Cause we usually go to Cabo or, you know, one of those vacation sites.”

But this wouldn’t be a vacation. Jessup gathered donations from the hospital where she works. Drugatz combed the neighborhood for supplies. She found Pleasant Grove United Methodist Church through an internet search and called the pastor.

“I said, ‘Do you need us?’ And he said, ‘Yeah, how soon can you be here?'”

Four days and 2,000 miles later they were there.

“Well, we walked through the door and they clapped.”

“They said, ‘Our nurses are here.'”

“Yes, our nurses are here.”

Donna Drugatz is a bundle of energy, short blond hair framing her face. Denise Jessup is taller, dark hair, a quieter complement to Drugatz’s quick laugh.

The two got to work treating basic injuries at their makeshift nurses station. They visited with victims, counseling and addressing mental health issues. Sorted clothing, food and toy donations. The latest task is setting up an uncooperative laptop so storm victims can file with FEMA. Then there’s war on germs.

“I’ll show you the mens room so you can see our infection control.”

Drugatz explains they scrubbed the bathrooms. Scrubbed every table and every chair. Here in the bathroom sanitizing wipes are out on the counter. Everywhere you look, signs instruct you to wipe out the sink and wash your hands.

“So they can’t miss it?”

“They can’t miss it. They can’t miss it. Do they do it? We figured if you put two things up, they’ll do one. At least the hand washing will be done.”

The pair are known as the “Clorox Queens.”

Pleasant Grove United Methodist Church has seen volunteers from at least half-a-dozen states. But the members particularly sing the praises of their California nurses. The coordinator says they couldn’t have hired better help.

Drugatz and Jessup will soon return to California, a land of earthquakes and wildfires. But these tornados in Alabama have left their mark. Drugatz says she won’t let this disaster be forgotten.

“When I take back the pictures and post them. And it will be shown in my son’s church and in my church. And people will know that these people have two to three years, four years ahead of them.”

They’ll come back to Pleasant Grove, she says. In fact, Drugatz considers that town’s name popping into her head a calling. So this cross country disaster response trip may not be her last.


Andrew Yeager

Andrew Yeager