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.
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.
Victims who need help with temporary housing or rebuilding expenses can apply for FEMA grants for up to $30,200. (That amount includes any temporary housing FEMA provides.) FEMA officials noted that those grants likely wouldn't be enough for homeowners to rebuild or repair substantially damaged homes, and they urged residents to apply for loans from the Small Business Administration (SBA).
Since SBA loans are contingent on acceptable credit scores and the borrower's ability to pay back the loan, some residents in areas already hard-hit by the flagging economy and unemployment may not qualify for SBA help. Homeowners without insurance or jobs will likely need to look beyond the government for critical help.
Help for storm victims poured into the disaster zone from all over the country: Volunteer teams from groups like the Red Cross, the Salvation Army, and Southern Baptist Disaster Relief served thousands of meals within days of the storms. The Baptist group dispatched chainsaw crews to help clear roads and clean yards hours after the tornadoes struck. (Since homeowner's insurance doesn't typically cover fallen trees that haven't damaged the home, volunteer help is critical for some families that can't afford thousands of dollars of tree removal.) The Tuscaloosa Volunteer Reception reported that 10,000 volunteers registered with the group within two weeks. The volunteers included church groups, school groups, and individuals.
Beyond large relief groups and teams flowing in from across the country, local churches remained a crucial part of the immediate relief effort: Church leaders who know the community helped to dispatch aid to areas that needed it most. Dempsey-whose church sent teams into Sand Mountain to help with cleanup-said that while FEMA and the Red Cross had helped, local churches and families had accomplished the brunt of the immediate relief work. That work included aid from several small churches that had been significantly damaged or destroyed.
While large aid agencies, including groups like Habitat for Humanity, assess possible home rebuilding projects across the region, Dempsey said his church was considering "adopting" a local family that had lost its home. Dempsey's church has taken a dramatic hit in the economic decline, but he said his congregation still has been generous: "I think if they could put a family back on solid ground, they'd work hard to do it."
Mrs. Dempsey agrees, and says though she's grappled with survivor's guilt in her unscathed home, she believes she's positioned to help: "We have what we have so we can help other people."
While tornadoes ravaged the South in instantaneous and random destruction, record-level floodwaters from the Mississippi are producing a slow and predictable devastation. Thousands of Louisiana residents fleeing their Cajun country homes in mid-May faced a heartbreaking prospect: By the time they returned, their homes might be destroyed. That reality sank in across small Louisiana towns as state officials opened a floodgate for the first time in nearly 40 years.
While seeking to protect the heavily populated towns of Baton Rouge and New Orleans from the swelling Mississippi River, the opened floodgates could submerge the homes of as many as 4,000 Louisiana residents in small towns. What's worse, floodwaters could remain on the ground for as long as three months.
Most residents heeded authorities' warnings, packing their belongings into cars, trucks, moving vans, and storage units, and abandoning their towns. Many residents hoped that sandbags piled high around their homes could hold back some of the water, especially if flooding isn't as drastic as many fear.
But flooding has been drastic in other states already: Heavy snowfalls last winter and heavy rain this spring have swollen the Mississippi River to record levels. Engineers in Missouri blew up a levee to ease pressure on floodwalls protecting Cairo, Ill. The waters flowing past the destroyed levee flooded about 200 square miles of farmland and destroyed or damaged nearly 100 homes.
The river reached near-record levels in Memphis in May, forcing some 1,300 people to evacuate their homes, and flooding low-lying neighborhoods. The river ran nearly 3 miles wide, about six times its usual span. As flooding subsided in Memphis, towns in Mississippi braced for rising waters and the threat of serious floods.
While thousands in Louisiana waited to see whether their homes would survive, some contemplated what it would mean if they didn't. Bernadine Turner of Krotz Springs spent a weekend moving her belongings from her home, and watching the bayou in her backyard. "There's no doubt that it's going to come up," she told the Associated Press. "We don't have flood insurance and most people here don't. Man, it would be hard to start all over."