Matthew Romei ’98

Photo Courtesy of Matthew Romei ’98.

Photo Courtesy of Matthew Romei ’98.

A sergeant with the Fairfield, Ala., Police Dept., Matthew Romei ’98 serves as a volunteer firefighter/paramedic. A member of the Alabama National Guard, he is assigned to Detachment 1 of the 1166 Military Police Company in Calera. While at Norwich, Matthew volunteered with the Northfield Fire Department and Ambulance Service, and the Berlin Fire Department.

The tornado outbreak that occurred on April 25 – 28, 2011, was one of the deadliest ever recorded. In a three-day span, the National Weather Service confirmed 358 tornadoes from Texas to New York to southern Canada. A total of 348 people across six states perished, including 238 in Alabama alone. One of the costliest natural disasters in United States history, damages totaled approximately $11 billion. Both during and after the storm, Norwich’s own Matthew Romei ‘98 was at ground zero in some of the hardest hit areas of Alabama. This is his story.

On the morning of April 27, 2011, Laura and I were up early with our 28-day-old daughter, Samantha. As we followed storm coverage by meteorologist James Spann, I looked over at Laura and said, “This looks like it’s going to be a long day; I better pack a bag.”

It was my off day from my job heading up the Law Enforcement Support Office for the Fairfield Police Department, so I checked in with Cahaba Valley Fire and Rescue where I volunteer, and then returned home. The day looked to get much, much worse.

That evening, Laura and I huddled in our basement, watching live footage of a massive tornado cutting across Tuscaloosa to the southwest. That one would draw a straight path toward Fairfield, a town of 12,000 people concentrated in three square miles. At the last moment, the storm turned left and ripped through Pleasant Grove, our immediate neighbor. My off day was suddenly over. As I made my way in to the city, I had to stop several times to cut trees blocking the road.

At the department we have about $6 million worth of surplus military equipment—I think we deployed $5 million worth in the subsequent weeks. Our first delivery to Pleasant Grove was a tractor-trailer loaded with sleeping bags, cots, mats, bandages, and generators.

That evening, as I stood next to my National Guard unit’s team leader, both our phones rang. We were called to Tuscaloosa, where our unit joined forces with the U.S. Marshals Gulf Coast Regional Fugitive Task Force (GCRFTF). Since I was cross-trained as an EMT, I was tasked to the GCRFTF, responding to calls, clearing houses, treating the injured, and marking the dead. As bad as it was, the night would never tell the destruction we would witness the next day.

That morning broke clear and crisp. It would have been a wonderful morning for a hike. Our hike took us through a neighborhood that was virtually wiped off the map. Were it not for my U.S. Army-issued land navigation skills, I would have not known where I was. A few days later I would meet up with Albie Lewis ‘78, who had been assigned to the FEMA/DHS Office. Life had come full circle: Albie had been the assistant chief at the Berlin Fire Department when I volunteered there as a Norwich student.

For the next two weeks, we worked around the clock, running roadblocks, delivering supplies, and answering calls. While our radios might not have talked to each other, we were all officers and firefighters, EMTs, and citizens of Pleasant Grove. More than three years later, the scars are still visible in the dirt and in the hearts of the citizenry.

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