Recently, I was driving home up highway 169 in Lee County, Alabama. Ten minutes after we passed a roadside business, it was destroyed by 170 mile-per-hour winds. Trees turned into missiles, and 23 lives were lost.
This monster storm tracked through Beauregard and Smith’s Station, destroying nearly every home along a 24-mile path. Victims included three small children, 10 members of one African-American family, and Maggie Robinson, a nurse at the East Alabama Medical Center for 40 years.
As the climate changes, deadly storms like the one that killed Maggie are more frequent. Rural areas suffer the most. When a storm hits a community like Beauregard, where many people live in mobile homes and at or below the poverty line, dozens can die in seconds.
I’ve helped rural communities recover from natural disasters for two decades, and spent two years on the Gulf Coast helping rebuild from Hurricane Katrina.
Once news cameras leave, rural people are left on their own. Drug abuse goes up, and so does domestic violence. We lost many people to suicide after Katrina. In Florida and Georgia, where Hurricane Michael did even more inland damage, people are still living in tents.
Natural disasters don’t discriminate: they kill everyone. But disaster recovery, sadly, does discriminate: poor and rural communities quickly get forgotten.
Big relief groups come in and take donations after disasters, leaving grassroots groups to do the hard work of recovery after they’re gone. In Hackleburg, Alabama, where an EF-5 tornado destroyed most of the town in 2011, a local youth ranch stepped up to the task.
I helped them network with volunteers at a community center in the mountains of Northeast Alabama, all the way across the state, to meet the needs of poor and elderly people who had lost everything.
Both areas had been hit with monster storms. But their combined resources made the recovery easier.
This is a huge gap in rural disaster recovery: local groups do the hard work, but often don’t have what they need to help people recover. That’s why I’ve set up the Rural Disaster Recovery Network, to help local nonprofits like Hometown Action connect with skilled volunteers and resources in places like Lee County.
That’s what we did in Tuscaloosa in 2011 after tornadoes killed 41 people. Twenty small nonprofits in small towns throughout Alabama came together, shared resources, and we supported each other.
I’ve seen the best of humanity come out in rural communities after disasters. Class and race, all of that goes out the window. Everybody comes together, because we’re all human beings — and that’s all that matters in the aftermath of a storm.
If we could find a way to bottle that spirit, it would solve all of our problems. There’s an opportunity in disaster relief to go into rural communities and to learn about them, learn from them, and understand them.
That is one of the hardest things we have to do — we’re so divided right now as a country. And yes, the South definitely deserves some of the flak we get for this. But disasters don’t discriminate, and we shouldn’t either.
I was going through rural Jackson County, Alabama after the tornadoes in 2011, and there was a guy whose house was blown down. He was living in a tent in his front yard. We stopped to see if he needed any help, and he just smiled and said, “I’m fine. Go down the road and check on someone else.”
That’s the best of the rural spirit. I’ve witnessed overt racism and bigotry in Alabama, but I’ve also seen Blacks and whites cry together, holding each other, after big storms. There’s a lot more nuance to the South, and a growing movement of people who want change.
In disaster recovery, there’s an opportunity to bring people together, sow seeds of kindness, and start enacting real change here.