By Xander Swain
Tornadoes are an unfortunate but constant part of living in Alabama.
I was born in Northport, Alabama, but grew up in multiple states due to moving around. Although I was never in Alabama for more than a summer before moving to Montevallo, tornadoes were always something to be talked about in my family.
I remember living in North Carolina in 2011 when my teacher came up to me and pulled me aside.
She asked me about my family and if they were alright from the tornado that hit Tuscaloosa and Birmingham. The tornado in question cost over 2 billion dollars, and left 64 people dead. Fortunately, none of my family was injured, and none of their homes were hit.
A lot of my family in Alabama live in Perry County. Chances are if you walk into Perry County and talk to a random stranger, I’m related to them in some way. It’s a small community, but they’re all mostly kinfolk. To this day, my parents and grandparents will be talking about someone in our family, and I’ll have to ask who it is. Every time, it’s a cousin or an uncle or aunt.
This brings me to March 25.
It was the end of spring break, and I was in North Carolina due to COVID-19 and remote learning. Regardless of where I was, I had my phone open and was watching James Spann on my TV.
Seeing that the tornado path was directly going towards Perry County had me and my family worried, with our phones full of messages and concern for family members in Alabama. That fear is something that I think every person in Alabama has felt.
Total damages of the March 25 tornadoes are still being assessed, but it was a total ten tornadoes, with the Perry County tornado at an EF-3. Other areas of Alabama were hit just as hard, with another severely damaging tornado in Shelby County. Ultimately the tornadoes caused several injuries, along with five deaths in Calhoun County.
This was the first time in my life that my family was directly affected by tornadoes. It’s never something you plan for or believe will happen to you. It’s surreal. Fortunately, no one was injured, but homes were completely destroyed, and nearly everyone in the area was and continues to be displaced.
One of the homes that was destroyed was my great grandmother’s. Her house was the place that anyone could stay if they had nowhere else to go. It was where we had family holidays, and spent whole summers at. To see it the way it was, was gut wrenching.
My parents decided that we were going to travel to Alabama to help out as much as we could. We saw that everyone was displaced because the entire community was hit and couldn’t help each other. We got to Alabama Saturday, March 27, and left on April 3. The entire week we were there, we tried to salvage what we could at not just my Nanny’s, but also as many houses as we could and tried to help however people needed it.
Perry County and so many other areas in Alabama are deeply rural. The week we were there was primarily spent without phone service.
This is why I decided to write this article. As I was looking at different reports, it continued to jump out to me the immense coverage of the different areas in Shelby County and other more suburban communities were receiving compared to Perry County.
These areas suffered just as severely, if not worse, in specific communities, but what was angering was the lack of response to Perry County and more impoverished communities. Talking to other family members and comparing different natural disaster responses in the past to the current one, it was clear to me there was a disparity.
Because they’re so historically rural, areas like Perry County often rely on community help through neighbors, churches and different religious organizations. This time around, it was no different, except it was the entire community affected. It’s hard to help your community when you are also in need of help.
We needed assistance, not just from an organization like Samaritan’s Purse or Lutheran Early Response teams, but from the Alabama Emergency Management Agency (EMA), FEMA and insurance companies like Alfa.
It’s pitiful that we have to rely on non-profits to help out our most suffering communities, when the Alabama EMA receives $5 million from the State Budget, and FEMA receives $28.7 billion. Samaritan’s Purse, a Christian humanitarian aid organization, was contacted on March 29 and showed up the next day to help do a lot of the tree removal and came back the following day to help take down house debris. Before me and my family had even made it ourselves, other religious non-profits were assisting the area.
Some insurance companies showed up as early as March 27, others didn’t show up until March 31 – five days after the initial tornadoes. Speaking to family members in the area, most of them have said that the community just wants better communication. Most of them were left in the dark and continue to be uninformed about the different available resources and how to receive them.
Perry County EMA Director DeAndrae Kimbrough sent out dumpsters and portable toilets to the area, which was much-needed and the people in the area were extremely grateful. However, as much help as he can be, his hands are tied due to the bureaucratic nightmare. In a rural area like this, it’s difficult to make assessments for the ‘quotas’ necessary for relief.
So far, Kimbrough is the only significant representative or government official to be in the area. Kay Ivey toured areas of Shelby County but did not bother to stop by Perry County. The state and the federal government have yet to provide the entire necessary assistance.
As citizens in Alabama continue to be displaced, without the necessary resources to continue on with their lives, Kay Ivey and other legislators are about to spend billions on new prisons. As Alabamians try to build back their homes, the government that is supposed to be for the people, is debating whether or not the sweet potato should be the state vegetable.
It’s difficult to look at this situation and argue that our current system is fighting for every citizen’s needs and hearts.
I’m not blaming any individual, and I do not think that any individual is to blame. What is to blame is the system’s lack of care for the basic needs of the impoverished and of people who make up the working class and the backbone of our country.
Bureaucracy is and will continue to be the excuse of limited response or aid to these situations. It’s what led to the disaster of Katrina, an event that happened almost a decade ago, but we are continuing to see the causes of the humanitarian disaster. Enough of the excuses. It’s time for legislators to do their jobs.
No matter the political party, natural disaster relief and a crumbling infrastructure continue to be ignored in meaningful policy reform. Both parties claim they are the party of the people, but when the people begin to suffer, both parties’ cash into the political machine of meaningless rhetoric and bureaucracy.
Xander Swain is the copy editor for The Alabamian. He is majoring in political science, environmental studies, and sociology and wants to eventually obtain a Ph.D. in sociology. He enjoys cooking for his friends, listening to music and taking long walks on the beach.