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Associated Press/Photo by Dave Martin

Storm season

Weather | Locals fight to help one another following deadly tornadoes

Issue: "Dating and courtship confusion," June 4, 2011

Atlantic hurricane season officially begins June 1. Don't tell that to the volunteers in Tuscaloosa, Ala., sorting through towering mounds of donations that have flowed into the tornado-ravaged town since late April. Simple items like canned food and bottled water help families coping with complicated losses like damaged homes and lost possessions.

Other items are less helpful: Volunteers stack broken toys in 6-foot-high piles, and sort through hundreds of bags full of old clothes and used underwear. A particularly odd donation adorns one corner: a 3-foot-tall plastic Santa Claus.

Aid agencies say the mass donations of unneeded items add to the chaos of relief efforts by draining volunteers' time and depleting storage space for essentials. (The Salvation Army reports that helpful items include new underwear, nonperishable food, and sports drinks.) It's a reminder that effective giving involves heeding what aid groups and local officials say that tornado survivors need most.

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Nearly a month after at least 312 tornadoes ravaged seven Southern states in a 24-hour period-killing more than 300 and leaving thousands homeless-the needs are profound: Many survivors face rebuilding their lives from scratch. Analysts estimate that losses in Alabama alone could reach $1.9 billion to $2.6 billion. (Hurricane Ivan in 2004 cost the state $2 billion.)

But the needs are also complex: In a region with a faltering economy and high unemployment, rebuilding means facing stiff challenges in towns enduring substantial hardship before the tornadoes ever struck.

Billy and Debbie Dempsey drove through a handful of those towns the day after a massive tornado ripped through the Sand Mountain plateau in northeastern Alabama. Dempsey is pastor of Grace Presbyterian Church in nearby Fort Payne, a town that narrowly escaped tornado damage.

The drive to check on neighbors was sobering. "I'll never forget seeing people picking through piles of what was left," says Mrs. Dempsey. "And in some cases there was nothing left except the front steps or the slab of the house."

Like many small towns scattered across the Southern tornado zones, the towns in Sand Mountain and the surrounding region already were struggling. Once-profitable hosiery mills closed as companies moved jobs overseas. Local businesses depending on the mills' success for their own profitability began folding, and unemployment grew.

Despite the industrial downturn, farming and raising chickens remain profitable enterprises crucial to the state's economy: Alabama is the third-largest poultry producer in the United States, bringing in $5 billion a year. That made the April destruction especially painful: State officials estimate the tornadoes damaged or destroyed more than 700 poultry houses and killed more than 3 million chickens. Though that's a relatively small portion of the 1 billion chickens raised in the state each year, agricultural officials said the losses would disrupt business and deplete cash, especially for smaller farms.

The Alabama Foresters Association also reported losses-$294 million-to the state's forestry industry. Cattle farmers reported more than 100 cattle deaths, but thousands more cows wandered past broken fences, leaving farmers racing to round up their herds. Mrs. Dempsey said the damage to farms was a devastating sight. "The land is really scorched," she said. "There are places where there's not even a blade of grass."

Across parts of Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, Tennessee, and Virginia, small businesses have crumbled in the tornadoes' paths: Gas stations, restaurants, hotels, and whole office parks sit in heaps of debris along highways and back roads. Though rebuilding efforts will likely produce thousands of jobs, the suddenly unemployed face a long wait and dim prospects for their immediate future.

Back in towns on Sand Mountain, those who were struggling before the storm could face even deeper challenges: Dempsey notes that an increasing number of residents had stopped paying for homeowners' insurance when money became tight before the tornado. For those with no insurance and no savings, the prospects are grim. "I don't know how they're going to reestablish a home," he says. "They've got a long way to go."

Three weeks after the tornadoes, some residents across the disaster zones were still camping outside their devastated property, and officials from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) plan to help with temporary housing. The agency began sending trailers (like the units used after Hurricane Katrina) to residents in some rural areas. But FEMA officials said urban areas-like Birmingham-wouldn't need trailers because the cities had enough vacant rental properties available to house tornado victims looking to rent.

Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan said HUD had another option in mind: taking advantage of foreclosed homes. Donovan said the Federal Housing Administration has located more than 1,000 foreclosed homes that storm victims could possibly rent or buy in Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Georgia.

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