BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — In a post-Hurricane Katrina reality, reassurance from Washington arrived quickly for those devasted by last week’s tornadoes.
So it was when President Obama toured Alabama Friday. And so it was again on Sunday, when Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and other senior administration officials toured some of the hardest-hit neighborhoods of the storm-ravaged state, vowing to deliver quickly on the “maximum federal help” Obama promised.
In Birmingham’s Pratt City neighborhood, members of the media followed as Napolitano, two other Cabinet secretaries, two agency heads and dozens of local, state and other national officials strolled past snapped electrical wires, stop signs dangling from twisted poles and houses missing front doors or entire second floors.
As the group walked through, displaced residents continued picking up pieces of their lives. Some stopped to talk with officials, who in turn offered advice or encouragement in their brief encounters.
On one street, Napolitano met Stephanie Anderson and Sheila Hurd, whose mother, Bessie Brewster, 72, was killed by Wednesday’s twisters.
“This is our neighborhood where we were born and raised,” Anderson told Napolitano.
“You have to rebuild this place,” Napolitano said.
“Yeah, we are,” Hurd said.
“We know this is your job, but the fact that y’all just came out just showing your support of us, we just appreciate it,” Anderson told Napolitano.
The women clutched some of their mother’s clothing they found across the street. They found her car almost a block away. And after days of searching, they found their mother at the county morgue.
“We haven’t really been looking for things, we had been looking for her,” Hurd said to reporters as Napolitano moved on.
Around the corner, the secretary marveled at the amount of debris that would have to be removed. “Where are we going to put it and how are we going to get rid of it?” she asked Birmingham Mayor William A. Bell.
“That’s what we’re trying to figure out,” he said.
Later Bell thanked Napolitano for the rapid response and recounted how he received his first call from FEMA about 30 minutes after the storms ended.
Also on the tour were Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator W. Craig Fugate, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan, and Karen Mills, administrator of the Small Business Administration. Each agency will play a role in providing the housing and economic aid that Obama promised during a similar tour Friday.
The excursion mirrored trips that officials had taken to communities affected by the BP oil spill. Obama administration officials, shortly after taking office, also toured areas devastated by Katrina.
Napolitano spoke with the Rev. T.L. Lewis, whose 13-acre Bethel Missionary Baptist Church was leveled. He had established a relief center at a nearby school and vowed to rebuild his church.
“Were you insured?” Napolitano asked.
“Well, Madam Secretary, that’s the easy part. We will rebuild again,” he said, adding later that he’s more concerned for his parishioners and making sure “that though they’re homeless, they’re not hopeless.”
At one point Vilsack grabbed Donavan, urging him to speak with a woman who had apporoached him with housing questions.
At a corner lot on Trilby Street, near that twisted stop sign, Napolitano, Donovan and Mills entered the house of an older woman who was cleaning out debris. Reporters were kept away from the house, but after five minutes an aide shouted, “Mr. Fugate!” The administrator quick-stepped through the front door to answer the woman’s questions.
“We know this is not a partisan issue, this is about people,” Sewell told Napolitano, as she grasped Bachus’s arm.
Birmingham Police Chief A.C. Roper said he had a longer view. He said appreciates the initial federal response, but is also eager for the federal government’s help in developing a long-term recovery plan “and the finances to make it work.”
“We’ve got people who have lost everything and they need to know there’s a plan to restore this community and to help them out,” Roper said.
Mills said her agency would have 40 officials in the region by Monday assisting with applications for federal loans.
USDA programs are providing assistance to affected farmers, and Vilsack also urged Alabama officials to apply for more federal food aid.
Donovan said HUD officials are working to identify available rental properties after more than 480 public housing units suffered damage from the storms.
But with so many properties damaged, “This is going to be a big housing mission and what we don’t know yet is, will we have enough rental properties for everybody in the area?” Fugate said.
Flying to Birmingham Sunday before the tour, Fugate, a former Florida state emergency mangement official who was critical of the Bush administration’s handling of Katrina, admitted he’s already frustrated by the pace of the federal response.
“I never seem to be able to get things done fast enough,” he said with a shrug.
On his ride back to the airport, Fugate said that local and state officials grappling with significant budget shortfalls were already requesting that the federal government pay for all of the intial cleanup costs.
During a phone call with Gov. Robert Bentley (R-Ala.) before flying on to Mississippi, Fugate wouldn’t initially commit to 100 percent funding.
“I’m doing everything I can to get aid to you quickly,” he told the governor. “I’ve been on the other end . . . I know what it’s like.”