Opinion Columns & Blogs

Natural disasters don’t discriminate, but disaster recovery, sadly, does

Recently, I was driving home up U.S. 169 in Lee County, Alabama. Ten minutes after we passed a roadside business, it was destroyed by 170 mph winds.

This monster storm tracked through Beauregard and Smith’s Station, destroying nearly every home along a 24-mile path. Twenty-three lives were lost.

As the climate changes, deadly storms like these are becoming more frequent. Rural areas such as Beauregard, where many people live in mobile homes or below the poverty line, suffer the most.

I’ve helped rural communities recover from natural disasters for two decades. Once news cameras leave, rural people are left on their own. Drug abuse, domestic, abuse, and suicides go up. In Florida and Georgia, people are still living in tents after Hurricane Michael.

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 — but local groups 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 connect with skilled volunteers.

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 supported each other.

I’ve seen the best of humanity come out in rural communities after disasters. Everybody comes together, because we’re all human beings. 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 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.

Warren Alan Tidwell has worked on disaster relief efforts in the South for 20 years. He’s a member of Hometown Action, part of the People’s Action network. Distributed by OtherWords.org.