EUTAW, Ala. – There’s not much in Greene County, a place that stands out even in impoverished west Alabama for its neediness. So the tornado that settled down upon one of its most densely populated areas, a housing community full of seniors and low-income families, felt like a particularly cruel blow.
Swirling winds ripped roofs off apartments, toppled walls and shattered windows. Eula Dell Lanier, 64, cried out to God as her home came apart. “I was calling Jesus as the walls were coming down,” she said.
Yet the tornado wasn't one of the memorable monsters that devastates so many in places the South or Midwest; no one was killed or even badly injured. While about 40 homes in the 200-unit development were damaged, only a handful were as bad as Lanier's house.
Still, the recovery seems tough to some residents nearly four months later because of what housing officials say are shortages of workers and supplies, geographic isolation and lethargy caused by generational poverty. And with what is typically the worst part of hurricane season ahead for the U.S. Gulf Coast, the experience at William McKinley Branch Heights — named for an area civil rights leader — shows just how hard it can be to move on from even a small disaster when life was a struggle beforehand.
Lanier's home was heavily damaged in the twister on April 13 and now she lives in a small replacement apartment nearby. She's so sad about the lingering damage and debris that she doesn't drive by her old place, where crumbled brick walls still lie in the yard and a hole in the roof lets in rain. The inside reeks of mold and mildew.
“You come into Branch Heights and see all that stuff and it’s like they’re not even trying to clean it up. It’s depressing, and it just seems so slow,” she said. In a community of both privately owned homes and government subsidized apartments, Lanier owned her home and has insurance, but repairs have yet to begin.
While the area didn't qualify for assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency because the damage wasn't bad enough, officials say they are trying hard to repair the community, and plenty of progress has been made.
The Alabama Rural Coalition for the Homeless provided $30,000 for temporary housing for dozens of residents, who settled in a small motel for as long as two months because nowhere else was available in the rural county. School buses were rerouted to the EconoLodge, and donors provided clothes, shoes, food, gift cards and more to the victims. Contractors are still repairing apartments in sweltering summer temperatures. About 125 residents displaced by the storm are back at Branch Heights, albeit in temporary homes.
Still, Anita Lewis, executive director of the Greene County Housing Authority, has heard the complaints about what feels like a slow-motion recovery to some.
“It was not a major storm, but because of the size of the development it was major to us,” said Lewis. “It was devastating to the families and the community."
The head of a group that provides assistance in some of the poorest parts of Alabama worries what the recovery at Branch Heights could portend for other underprivileged parts of the Gulf Coast region that might get hit this summer.
“I think one major disaster like a hurricane could be devastating for our area,” said Cynthia Burton, executive director of Community Service Programs of West Alabama, which assisted in Eutaw and operates in 10 counties.
Weak in terms of a tornado, the twister’s winds peaked at 90 mph (145 kph) as it traveled about 18 miles (29 kilometers) across an area almost 90 miles (145 kilometers) southwest of Birmingham. The entire county has only 7,600 residents, 80% of whom are Black, and it typically has one of the worst jobless rates in the state. Nearly 30% of its residents live in poverty.
The lack of an organized disaster volunteer group in Greene County complicated the recovery in Eutaw because coordinating needs and solutions was more difficult, according to Melinda Stallworth of the Governor’s Office of Volunteer Services, which is still assisting with the work. The agency hopes to get a group organized within a matter of weeks, before hurricane season has a chance to intensify, she said.
“Recovery takes a while in the first place,” she said. “With these additional struggles it takes longer.”
Most homes are OK in Branch Heights, but blue tarps, fractured walls and debris piles are still visible on some streets. The mix of government housing and privately owned homes complicates the recovery, said the housing director.
But Branch Heights is hardly the only place to struggle after a natural disaster.
In coastal Louisiana, some members of Native American communities live in the wreckage of Category 4 Hurricane Ida nearly a year later, and residents of rural Mayfield, Kentucky, are still rebuilding after much of the town was shattered during a tornado outbreak that killed about 90 people in the Midwest and South in December.
Poorer communities often have a harder time recovering from natural disasters than richer places because they get less aid, have less insurance, less credit and lack the resources to seek aid, according to the Wharton Risk Management and Decision Processes Center at the University of Pennsylvania. More aid, better preparation and simpler application processes are needed, it found.
Lewis said it's hard to repair a residence when the nearest big-box home supply store is about 35 miles (56 kilometers) away in Tuscaloosa. The damage wasn't enough to result in a disaster declaration, she said, so only limited outside aid was available.
Private groups and the state helped, she said, but the community center at the middle of Branch Heights is still cracked open months later. A gym full of donated items can only be opened now and then because of the structural damage and a lack of manpower, she said.
Just down the street from the community center, Jacqueline Allen wonders what might be living in a huge pile of debris near her home months after the twister. A child rode a hoverboard under the scorching summer sun just a few feet away from the mess.
“We worry that snakes and things will be coming in there,” she said. “It’s hot and they’re moving, and there’s children who live right next door to that.”