If the governor listened for 10 minutes, Benevides knew he’d stay for an hour.
And she was right.
Medical supplies are needed, recovery workers are lacking heavy equipment to tear down partially standing buildings and some people are living in tents on their property, afraid to leave what little they have left, Benevides told the governor when he stopped in Webster's Chapel on a tour of the state's storm-damaged areas.
“Our community’s worn out. Our men are exhausted,” said Benevides, one of two women coordinating the community effort.
Gov. Bentley went under a canopy and got on the phone. He requested that the Federal Emergency Management Agency move its disaster recovery center currently in Ohatchee Town Hall to Webster’s Chapel, said Jennifer Ardis, the governor’s press secretary. A state Emergency Management Agency representative will be on scene to help the state respond to the community’s needs as well, Ardis said. Requests for medical supplies or equipment reach the state EMA from the local director, she said.
A county official and contractor refuted Benevides’ claims that Webster’s Chapel needed an intervention. It is a “well-run” area, staffed by emergency workers around the clock, said Lee Helms, who is heading up the county clean-up. Benevides' pleas for help “came out of the blue,” county administrator Ken Joiner said.
“(Workers at Webster’s Chapel) have been busting their rear ends,” Joiner said. “She had one perspective she was coming from.”
Concerns voiced by Benevides –- a Silver Lake resident who grew up in Webster’s Chapel and one of two leading the volunteer work – boil down to problems with FEMA’s temporary housing programs, which should be solved when the disaster recovery center relocates to Webster’s Chapel, Helms and Joiner said.
FEMA is working to find temporary rental properties in the area, said William C. Lindsey, regional spokesman for FEMA.
Mobile homes were delivered to Phil Campbell, a small town in northwest Alabama, on Saturday, Lindsey said. It’s an area with an “extreme shortage” of available housing, he said. Housing is provided only as a last resort, a FEMA press release stated.
Storm survivors need to manage their recovery by finding a way to speak face-to-face with FEMA representatives, Lindsey stressed. If they’re afraid to leave their remaining belongings, the people should ask friends or family to watch over property, he said.
Speaking face-to-face means either talking with members of the FEMA community relations teams -– which Lindsey said are going door to door in the affected communities -– or coming to a disaster recovery center. Currently there are two in Calhoun County, one in Ohatchee and one in Piedmont, which opened Sunday.
The one in Ohatchee is moving, as Bentley requested, but not to Webster’s Chapel, Lindsey said.
Word was passed down late Monday afternoon that after a full day in Ohatchee Tuesday, the center will break down and reassemble at the Jacksonville Civic Center, at 501-A Alexandria St. SW, Lindsey said.
“Where the need is, that’s where we try to put our best and most resources,” Lindsey said.
Jacksonville was not hit by the tornado. The civic center is approximately 15 minutes away from Williams First Baptist Church, one of the main volunteer hubs.
Despite Lindsey's statement, the governor’s office was under the impression that the center would be relocated at Webster’s Chapel.
Whichever is the next location for the disaster recovery center, Benevides was assured by Bentley’s response to her pleas. He told her local officials will get help, supplies and a direct line to his office, she said.
“That made me feel good, and I believe him,” said a sunburned Benevides, sitting down before the dinner rush at the Salvation Army truck.
Responsiveness to local needs and how the recovery is handled at this point is important, Bentley said at the Ohatchee Town Hall before going to Webster’s Chapel.
“This is our Katrina-like moment,” Gov. Bentley said. “The way we respond is the way we’ll be viewed.”
Star staff writer Jason Bacaj: 256-235-3546