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.”