In tornadoes’ aftermath, a devastated Alabama town isn’t focused on federal aid

April 30, 2011

A day after President Obama promised people in this tornado-ravaged state that they won’t be forgotten, a day after exhausted rescue workers here pulled a dead 3-year-old from tangled tree limbs and still hours before the first federal relief officials began arriving at the Tom Bevill Enrichment Center, there was the sound of buzzing saws clearing fallen oaks in this northeastern Alabama town.

In front of the Rainsville Church Pew Co., the “free food” sign was there again. In a parking lot nearby, the Southern Baptists were organizing yellow-shirted volunteers for a second day. And over on winding, two-lane Marshall Avenue, Joyce and Harold Parris’s neighbor Tammy was crossing a now-empty green field, saying, “Y’all okay?”

“I just found this in the road,” she said to Joyce Parris, handing her a tiny, glittering brooch, a gesture that seemed as kind as it did absurd amid the vast swath of shredded, twisted material and human ruin that one of the nation’s worst natural disasters left behind. Parris, 67, looked at it a moment.

“No, it’s not ours,” she said. And the two women went on talking like that, about lost jewelry and lost neighbors, about perfect strangers who brought barbecue chicken plates, clothes and shovels — a litany of tangible comfort and support.

It all had nothing and everything to do with Obama’s Friday visit to Tuscaloosa, about 150 miles south of here, meant to herald a federal relief effort that began to materialize here around noon Saturday, as three blue-shirted officials started plugging in computers at the Bevill center.

When asked about Obama’s visit and the federal aid, people in this predominantly Republican area — one of the places hit hardest by Wednesday’s barrage of tornadoes — said some version of, “I did hear something about that.” They’ve had no power, and no TV, for days.

Harold Parris, 69, who was flung out of his trailer into a ditch, said of the president, “I’m glad he did come check on us.” A neighbor, Stephen Wooten, said federal help — “really, any help” — is welcome. “I’m proud Obama came,” he said. “I am.”

But in other ways, Obama’s visit and the promise of federal aid, while appreciated, was somehow abstract in comparison to people like Kyle Jeffreys, of the Southern Baptists, who had organized buzz-saw teams to help cut down fallen trees; or Matt Bell, who was helping a neighbor search for a document in a wide field of splinter-size wood, ripped insulation and shreds of paper.

It wasn’t so much that people here expected more or less than their federal government offered; rather, many said they did not really know what to expect at all, or what to do other than to forge ahead with what they had.

And so as the president told a Tuscaloosa crowd, “We’re going to make sure . . . that we rebuild,” Wooten was lifting a huge chunk of vinyl siding from his son’s yard, saying, “Yes, this was a house.”

Town, county hit hard

At least 33 people — including two of Wooten’s friends, a neighbor of the Parrises and an entire family of four — were confirmed killed in Rainsville, a town of 5,000 people, and surrounding DeKalb County. Much of the area was still without power Saturday and only beginning to pull out of emergency mode. The recovery effort was still being manned predominantly by local residents and volunteers, along with emergency workers from surrounding counties.

Rather than talking about Obama, or wondering about federal aid, residents of Rainsville were mostly sorting their newly altered lives: minuscule matters, such as whether that brooch is theirs, and profound matters, such as who survived, and practical matters, such as where they will sleep tonight.

And there was the strange matter of getting used to a landscape literally rearranged. Along Main Street, school buses were flattened and sailed several blocks. The credit union is now represented by a blank slab. The Huddle House is a high pile of rocks. Where the Parrises live is suddenly lighter, emptier.

“It looks so different now,” Joyce Parris said, looking out at the green hills where stands of trees and several homes were now erased. It seemed brighter, she said.

People talked about their sheriff, Jimmy Harris, who, facing a shortage of manpower and a massive disaster, sent nonviolent prison inmates around the town to offer help.

One appeared in the yard of Wooten’s son.

“Anyone here need water?” the man asked in the hot afternoon.

“I reckon we got it pretty much covered,” Wooten said, then went back to work, moving a piece of blue siding.

After a while, he got in his truck and drove around town, across power lines and hills of debris.

He saw a cousin up ahead, walking along the road. He stopped and rolled down the window.

“Hey Sid,” he said, and asked him about his family.

“My mom and dad,” Sid said, shaking his head, explaining they were killed.

The two men talked awhile, both of them managing not to break down.

“So, give me a holler,” Wooten told his cousin, and then drove off to help out with another funeral.

Federal presence

By Saturday morning, officials from the Federal Emergency Management Agency had not yet arrived in Rainsville, and Wooten still had not heard all of Obama’s speech. Around noon, about 15 people, most of whom had not heard Obama’s speech, either, had started gathering in the Bevill center, waiting for the federal officials, who began to show up shortly after.

Some security officers handed orange “How Do I Apply for Assistance?” fliers to people coming in, who talked quietly in the mostly empty auditorium about the oddity of not being able to locate even a shred of their trailer homes.

Asked what she expected from the federal government, Christy Tucker said she wasn’t really sure, because she had never been in this situation before.

“I guess I expected to have a front door,” she said, referring to her obliterated house, which she left for a shelter as the tornadoes approached. Tucker, who was recently laid off from a sock factory nearby, had been getting by with help from relatives the past few days and was now hoping federal officials might help fill that role.

She had been waiting about an hour in the auditorium for them to show up.

“We’re trying to be patient because the damage is so widespread,” she said. “So far, I’ve mostly seen people helping other people. I’m just grateful to have any help.”

Stephanie McCrummen is a national reporter for The Washington Post. Before that, she was the paper’s East Africa bureau chief. She’s also written about the suburban housing boom and education reform, among other subjects.
Comments
Show Comments

Sign up for Today's Headlines

Start every morning with the most important stories.

Most Read National