The Militant (logo)  

Vol. 75/No. 19      May 16, 2011

(front page)
Solidarity marks workers’
response to tornadoes
Militant photos by Rachele Fruit, left; George Williams, right
Left: Volunteers at Pratt City disaster relief station at Wylam Elementary School. Brenda Madison is third from right; Sharon Barkley is fifth from right. Right: David Harrison, University of Alabama junior, volunteers in Tuscaloosa. He brought axes, hammers, and saws for relief effort.

BIRMINGHAM, Alabama—Two contrasting responses are evident in the wake of powerful tornadoes that ripped across seven southern states. On one hand is that of the government and its cold, bureaucratic institutions, the insurance companies with their red tape, and the bosses looking out for number one. On the other hand are working people who, while bearing the brunt of the crisis, are stepping in to fill the breach, rescuing people and helping each other through the crisis.

The April 27 storms killed some 330 people and caused massive destruction. The hardest hit state was Alabama, where more than 230 have died and more than 2,300 are reported injured.

Entire neighborhoods were devastated from Tuscaloosa to Birmingham. Trailer parks and other working-class communities suffered the greatest damage. More than 1 million people in Alabama, Mississippi, and Tennessee were left without power.

Many workplaces shut down. This included the Oak Grove mine, west of Bessemer, Alabama, and Jim Walters no. 4 mine in Brookwood. Honda, Mercedes-Benz, and Toyota auto plants were closed in the state due to lack of power.

But workers left jobless from the storm in eight Alabama counties are not eligible for disaster assistance unless state unemployment compensation benefits are exhausted.

Insurance companies in Alabama had to be ordered by the state government to give customers a 30-day grace period to pay premiums, delaying cancellation of coverage for non-payment until May 27. At the same time, the insurers are telling claimants that they have to wait while the companies “staff up.”

Birmingham mayor William Bell imposed an 8:00 p.m.--6:00 a.m. curfew in the city, where working people have been organizing relief work. Within a couple days after the tornado, miners in Birmingham were collecting supplies, such as water, food, clothing, and candles, and delivering them to out-of-the-way places like Dora, where there is no public transportation. Steelworkers set up a relief station in Tarrant City, collecting water, diapers, and other supplies and distributed them in Forestdale, one of the hardest-hit areas.

In Pratt City, a disaster relief station was set up at Wylam Elementary School on Cherry Avenue. A retired coal miner, who asked that his name not be used, told the Militant that a representative from the Federal Emergency Management Agency started asking a lot of personal questions when he tried to apply for assistance. “This is supposed to be about aid, not politics,” said the miner. He described how he and a group of other men and women went house to house rescuing trapped residents.

Student volunteers from Stillman College set up a relief station where people could make phone calls to relatives. Students who lived off campus lost everything. Darren Keith, a student from New Jersey, was among those off-campus students who were hospitalized. “After returning from the hospital we went back to school to find shelter, but the dorm overseer wouldn’t let us in,” said Keith. “We went to the student government, formed a committee to go to Dean of Housing, and he finally relented. Where were we supposed to go?”

Authorities from the local police to the National Guard have been checking identification of people entering affected areas and denying access to anyone who can’t prove that they live there. At the shelter in Pratt City, Victoria Robinson explained that she grew up in that town but now lives in northern California. She was visiting her mother who has Alzheimer’s disease when the storm hit. “I had to find a piece of mail that had the address on it before they would let me back in,” she said.

“I thought about the help we got after Hurricane Katrina and knew I had to come,” said a student from Xavier College in New Orleans who had just arrived in Pratt City to volunteer. Members of the Samford University football team and women’s soccer team from Homewood, Alabama, were among those who came to help.

Brenda Madison, a retired McDonald’s manager from Birmingham, organized a group of friends and family members to provide food in Pratt City. Madison explained that she had lost three family members to a tornado in 1977. “I decided to take $1,000 out of the bank and buy enough food to feed 1,000 people,” she said. “Some people asked me, ‘How do you know if they live in the area?’ But that’s not important to me.”

“We have to rely on ourselves,” said Sharon Barkley, a retired special education teacher. “We can’t sit around and wait for others. Nothing will get done.”  
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