Sunday, September 25, 2011

"Half that tree, a phone book, and a broken arm, that's all we had left."

FEMA is people.

People like the family in rural Alabama whose entire life disintegrated in the wind. The title of this post came from them. They are trying to rebuild, living in a FEMA trailer and getting regular visits from case workers who work with them to find a permanent place to live. Except thanks to Republicans, now they might not.

People like the students in northwest Alabama whose high school, the one thing that holds the town together, was ripped apart. They’re meeting in temporary buildings right now, provided by the good citizens of the United States of America by way of FEMA. Because of Republicans in Congress, a new school building is now uncertain.

People like me and those I work with in Birmingham, Alabama. FEMA has a policy to hire local people for disaster recovery. It’s good pay although the hours are brutal-when I started back in May it was 12 hours a day 7 days a week.

The local jobs are the silver lining to a disaster like the April 27 tornadoes. I was able to get off unemployment. Some of my co-workers can pay off student loans. Now our jobs are in jeopardy and the people we are working to help are left hanging.

The people who work for FEMA in disasters are not regular federal employees. Some are reservists who are deployed to a disaster like a flood in Fargo or a tornado in Missouri, away from their families for months so they can help someone else. Some are local hires like me, who can connect with their communities.

They are case managers, who work with individuals and families who have suffered enormous losses to try and regain a sense of normalcy. They are crisis counselors, who go out in the community, sometimes door to door, to help heal the psychologically wounded.

Here in Alabama and across the county, we have seen amazing responses from volunteers and donors. We help each other here, and we are justifiably proud of how far we’ve come. But that doesn’t mean it’s all we need.

Federal disaster assistance, in the form of grants and loans and people, is how all our citizens pitch in to help.

Republicans (including the ones in Alabama and Missouri and Virginia and Texas and all those other places blown away or washed away or burned up) believe that corporations are people but federal agencies aren’t. It’s a fallacy at best and a cruel and vicious lie at worst.

We are Americans and we care for each other. FEMA is people.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

The first thing you notice is the sky

The lights didn’t even flicker at our house the afternoon of April 27. The cable TV stayed on. That morning, when the squall line came through, the trees came down a quarter-mile from our house, but we just heard hail and hard rain while we hunkered downstairs. Then the sun came out but the warnings kept coming and so we watched.

We watched the snaky funnel cloud exploding through downtown Cullman just a mile from my in-laws’ house. We held our breaths when the sky-cam went out and we had no idea where the storm was going. It headed away from them, the weather guy said, and we relaxed for a moment.

But then another monster emerged and it was on a direct path to Tuscaloosa. Both our daughters were there. Anna was in her dorm. Genevieve went to a friend’s house, taking her dog and her computer. We were in Bluff Park, 45 miles away and all we could do was watch. For long minutes a ravenous cloud sunk its fangs and talons into the city. Pieces of people’s homes and lives spun like so many angry wasps in the funnel. All I could do was watch and wait and hope.

The campus was fine, but Genevieve’s neighborhood was devastated. I watched the video taken in the mall parking lot and that monster was right over her house. I saw no way it had survived and we consoled each other that at least she had her dog and her computer but her Little Blue Haus was most likely gone. Her dad got in the truck and drove to Tuscaloosa in the rain and went there and her landlord was already on site and miraculously although all the trees were gone, the house still stood.

It was not until this past Thursday that I truly saw the destruction. I’d already made four or five trips – I’ve lost count – but this was different. I drove up Hargrove and all of a sudden there was nothing there. I could see the sky because all the trees were gone and all the houses were gone. It looked like an African plain after a drought, like a forest after a wildfire. We’re accustomed to seeing houses and trees at eye level and now it was just wide open sky, an unnatural desert with formations of lumber and shingles and crushed metal.

Genny’s house has one of those search and rescue X’s on the window. Hers has 0/0 for no injuries, no deaths. A few doors down, it’s 0/1. My in-laws lost all their trees, and their outbuilding, and their gazebo but not their house. I think sometimes about what could have happened. If that tornado had veered a few degrees then campus would have been hit and Anna would have been buried under tons of rubble. A few degrees a different direction, and Genevieve would have been homeless. A slight variation of wind direction and a tree could have killed my mother-in-law.

But I am ultimately a practical person and it does no good to dwell on could have beens. What does help is to tell our stories. We are a story-telling species and this is mine and once it’s told then it is time to move on and do what I can to make things better.