HIGDON, Ala.—Marcquita Williams is living a nightmare.
Her mobile home is gone, windows blown out and roof ripped off. For the past two weeks, she and her 16-year-old son, Jaylon, slept in motel rooms or on her parents’ couch until she was able to rent a mobile home about 10 miles away.
With only a car, she hasn’t been able to move much that is still salvageable. Looters prowl the area at night, making off with tools and other gear.
“I’ve been crying all day,” Williams said Wednesday as she rubbed her eyes and ran her hands through her hair in frustration and despair. She sat in her parents’ badly damaged home after leaving work at Krystal. Her brother’s home was destroyed.
“It’s like a nightmare that never ends,” she said. “I don’t know which end is up or down. I wonder how I am going to feed my son tomorrow.”
Tornado victims on rural County Road 95, where Williams lived and where four people died more than two weeks ago, have struggled to recover from the tornadoes that swept through April 27. With no local police or city governments, they rely on their Appalachian spirit and neighbors to survive.
They say they are grateful for the help from local churches and volunteers, but recovery has been slow and difficult.
Higdon and nearby Flat Rock stand in contrast to heavily populated areas where damage and suffering have resulted in intensive media coverage, visits from federal officials including President Barack Obama and assistance from countless volunteers, as well as city and county workers and government agencies.
Although Gov. Robert Bentley toured the area Tuesday, the two unincorporated communities, with populations of several thousand each, have had few volunteers from outside the community.
In the first days after the tornadoes, some people lived in cars, relying on food delivered by volunteers. Others, fiercely independent, turned down offers of help and passed food along to their neighbors.
Some people here were without power for 11 days; food, showers and a place to sleep have been their main focus.
Now, Red Cross trucks crisscross the area, bringing cold water, warm hot dogs and first-aid kits.
Looting has been a constant problem — residents are afraid to leave their properties because what little they have left will be taken. They camp in travel trailers and tents next to their destroyed homes. The National Guard, which had been there for two weeks, pulled out Thursday.
The stress has become almost more than she can handle, Williams said. She went back to work at Krystal on Monday, but the bills — more money for gas, extra cell phone minutes — still pile up. She needs to rent a storage building, but that would be just another bill she can’t pay.
She had no insurance on the home she paid off with her income tax returns in February, and FEMA has told her she most likely will not qualify for a grant because she has a job.
“I can’t even sleep,” Williams said. “I’m still waiting for another one [tornado]. The locusts sound like a tornado. I don’t feel like a real mom; I can’t give my son the clothes and food he needs. Everything I’ve fought for my whole life is gone.”
In Jackson and DeKalb counties, in the communities of Flat Rock, Higdon, Shiloh, and across the state line on the crest of Sand Mountain in Georgia, few areas are untouched by the storms. Many residents didn’t have insurance.
Debris is everywhere. Unlike Rainsville, Ala.; Trenton, Ga.; and Ringgold, Ga., where mountains of debris have been piled alongside the road and contract crews work to haul it away, the roads and most lanes in the Sand Mountain communities have been cleared, but little debris or trees are piled for removal.
On Wednesday, one or two chain saws sounded a low whine amidst the quiet.
Jay McAnnally, a chaplain with the Carl Black Automotive Group in Kennesaw, Ga., and one of the few out-of-state volunteers, has made five trips to Jackson County with supplies, food and volunteers.
McAnnally has a daughter in college in Tuscaloosa and went there first. That area had enough help, so he moved north through the state. When he came to Jackson County, he stopped.
“There is an incredible need,” he said. “The Higdon folks there don’t have anything.”
Larry Smith sees that need firsthand. Dubbed the “Mayor of County Road 95” by the National Guard, Smith shows up every day on his blue four-wheeler to patrol the area and offer help where he can. His home wasn’t damaged, but his parents’ and brother’s homes were destroyed.
His 88-year-old grandmother, Inez Bright, who lived just down the road from his parents, died Monday. Her home was damaged but still livable after the tornado. The stress of seeing the community where she lived her entire life destroyed was too much for her, Smith said.
The family stopped their cleanup efforts Wednesday afternoon to hold her funeral.
“It’s painful — so many people have nothing left,” Smith said. “This is a good community, but they need help — material and people to come in to help repair and build.”
At least four twisters attacked Jackson County, stretching 40 miles from south to north, according to the county’s assistant emergency management director, Mike Ashburn. Jackson has a population of a little more than 50,000 but covers more than 1,000 square miles, one of the largest counties in the state.
The tornadoes killed eight people in Jackson County and 34 in DeKalb County. Three college students from near the Higdon area were killed in the tornado that struck Tuscaloosa the same day.
Ashburn said authorities don’t have a tally yet of how many homes and businesses were damaged or destroyed.
“We are still working on assessment,” he said. “The damage is in such rural areas and so widespread, we don’t have a final count.”
Scottsboro, the county seat, is 40 miles away from the hardest-hit areas.
The far-flung homes and widespread damage have made emergency response more difficult, said A.D. Hill, the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s task force leader for Jackson County.
“There are still isolated areas without power,” he said. “We brought in several teams to go door to door to help reach the people.”
The closest FEMA center is in Rainsville, more than 30 miles away, Hill said, but FEMA teams have canvassed the area. FEMA is working to get temporary housing and supplemental food assistance set up.
By the first part of the week, they hope to bring in the Army Corps of Engineers to begin hauling out debris, if it has been moved to the side of the road.
“OUT OF TEARS”
Residents are quick to stress that local volunteers from churches, fire departments and their neighbors have all pitched in. Food and donations also have poured in.
“God has sent stuff from everywhere,” said Chandra Peek. Peek’s husband, Jeff, pastors Higdon Baptist Church, and the two have spearheaded much of the recovery work in the area.
“But the storm was so big and it hit so massive,” Peek said, “it not only took people by surprise, the damage it done took people by surprise. If it had just been this area that was hit, it would be different. But it is everywhere.”
Peek has lived in the area all her life, and the tornado ripped apart everything she knew. With every familiar landmark wiped clean like a chalkboard, she sometimes has to stop to figure out where she is when she’s making food deliveries.
She can name many of the dozens killed in Jackson and DeKalb counties and knows their families. She sees the hurting every day as they struggle simply to live.
“You just run out of tears,” she said. “I’ve cried and cried every day since the storm hit.”
But the stories of survival and of the examples of caring have been amazing, she said. The community has come together and help will come, she said.
“IT WILL BE ENOUGH”
Just down the road from where Williams lived, Edward and Kathleen Anderson walk out of their temporary travel trailer home every day, fix breakfast on a camp stove and start the overwhelming task of sorting through the rubble that was once their home.
Clothes, kitchen tiles, wallboard, family pictures and fragments of furniture — all that remains of the house they proudly built with their own hands and called home for 20 years — lie buried under fragmented walls and blown into twisted trees.
The couple, their daughter and three granddaughters took refuge in the hall when they heard the tornado’s roar. They survived, with some injuries, even though not a single wall was left standing.
All that remains is a mess.
Tents and stretched blue tarps cover the items they have recovered. The couple had no insurance, so every piece they can salvage is important.
Kathleen, 66, pours water on her head to try to stay cool. Her green T-shirt shows a darker sweat line around her neck. White gauze held in place by gray duct tape covers her right arm, badly gashed during the tornado. Medical tape wouldn’t hold up in the heat and hard work, she said.
Edward, 65, has had to double his blood pressure medicine since the storm, but he keeps on sifting through the debris a piece at a time.
Once a day, Red Cross volunteers stop by with food and check on them. Family members brought out the travel trailer and help when they can.
“People have been real good about bringing food and water,” Kathleen said.
Midmorning, when the glaring May sun shoots the temperature close to 90, the Andersons take a break, sitting in lawn chairs under a tent.
They say they plan to build again. FEMA has promised them some money, but not enough to cover all their losses.
“I got him and he’s got me, and that is how we started out,” Kathleen said. The couple has been married 43 years.
“Here we are — it’s just the two of us again. God will take care of us. We’ll never have what we had, but it will be enough.”
Mariann Martin covers healthcare in Chattanooga and the surrounding region. She joined the Times Free Press in February 2011, after covering crime and courts for the Jackson (Tenn.) Sun for two years. Mariann was born in Indiana, but grew up in Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Belize. She graduated from Union University in 2005 with degrees in English and history and has master’s degrees in international relations and history from the University of Toronto. While attending Union, ...