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General News    H2'ed 5/23/11

After tornadoes, rural disaster area faces relief challenges

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The house where Dedrick Benison and Michael Calvin weathered the storm.  They crawled out t by Ada McMahon / Bridge the Gulf Project
The house where Dedrick Benison and Michael Calvin weathered the storm.  They crawled out the window on the far left.

The widespread destruction and high concentration of hurting people in Tuscaloosa and Birmingham (the state's largest city) rightly attracted attention and resources.  Big disaster relief organizations like the Red Cross, state and federal agencies, churches and faith-groups, and non-profit organizations responded by quickly setting up large relief operations in these urban centers.

But it wasn't just Tuscaloosa, it wasn't just one tornado, and it wasn't just Alabama that were hit.  305 tornadoes struck 21 states during the outbreak from April 25th to the 28th, with more than 300 fatalities across Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee and Virginia (Source: NOAA).

The flow of resources is not reaching all affected areas in this widespread disaster zone, especially rural, impoverished communities in the Black Belt.

In a report on the disaster, the Federation of Southern Cooperatives explains the challenge:  "Areas in the Black Belt that are extremely rural, and seriously economically depressed... are in danger of getting left out of the process of assistance... Individuals [are] not able to get out of the community to various supply relief hubs to pick up relief supplies."

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Map of some rural communities struck by tornadoes in western Alabama. by Ada McMahon / Bridge the Gulf Project
Map of some rural communities struck by tornadoes in western Alabama. Ms. McShan and Geiger appear in part two of this story.

In response to this need, Ms. Giles, the Federation, and other community-based organizations have emerged as critical bridges between resources and tornado victims in rural areas.

In the week after the disaster, things were not quite running efficiently, yet.  Ms. Giles and a few volunteers drove to Birmingham themselves to pick up the supplies for Greene County.  The trip took nearly the entire day and yielded just a pick-up truck and mini-van full of supplies - supplies that they quickly distributed the following day.

Even with piecemeal efforts like this marking the chaotic days following the disaster, the Federation says it has managed to supply 400 rural families in 8 communities with food, clothes, and other necessities.

It's a good start.  But they have bigger immediate goals.  One is to establish the Federations' Rural Training Center in Epes, Alabama (about an hour drive southwest from Tuscaloosa on highway 59) as a regional hub for disaster relief.  Soon, they hope to have 18-wheelers filled with supplies headed to their facility, which is located in the midst of four rural counties that were struck by tornadoes.

With this relief supply chain in place, the Federation can focus on what they do best: working directly with rural residents to begin rebuilding lives and communities.

Read Part Two.

All photos and map graphic by Ada McMahon.

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ADA McMAHON is an independent writer and videographer currently based in New Orleans, Louisiana. She is a Media Fellow with Bridge the Gulf, a media project led by Gulf Coast communities working toward justice and sustainability. (more...)
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