In the days after the April 27 tornado, Axelton helped search the remains of his neighbors’ houses for survivors. As the summer heat set in, he patrolled up and down Cochran Springs Road, running off would-be looters. Back then, the challenge was to stay cool and drink enough water.
Now he’s trying to figure out how to fit a Christmas tree into a FEMA trailer, and where to hold Thanksgiving with his three daughters and five grandchildren, and how to build a whole house with just $19,000, some donated building supplies and the help of a few friends.
“It took five months and 10 days for FEMA to come to a decision on my case,” he said. “By the time I had money to rebuild, almost all the volunteers were gone.”
Almost seven months have passed since the record tornado outbreak that killed hundreds across the state, including nine people in Calhoun County. With winter setting in, some storm victims still aren’t settled into permanent homes — they’re hunkering down for a makeshift holiday in make-do housing. And the army of volunteers that once swarmed the storm zone has largely vanished.
WANT TO HELP? To volunteer, call the Long-Term Recovery Committee at (256) 435-5091.
“People are fatigued and tired and they want to be with their families for the holidays,” said Sid Nichols, director of missions for the Calhoun Baptist Association, which has been building houses in the storm zone. “I wouldn’t expect much improvement before the beginning of the year.”
Officials of the Long Term Recovery Committee — an aid agency consisting of leaders from nonprofits across the county — say there are still 155 families in need of some kind of rebuilding assistance.
Some still need debris removed from their property, even though government debris-removal efforts are already finished. Many need significant home repairs. Ten, including Axelton, need completely new houses. For some, construction hasn’t even started. For others, like Axelton, it’s going in fits and starts.
‘Wish I had a siren’
“I wish I had a storm siren of my own,” said Wendi Wheeler, an organizer for A Rock Foundation, a nonprofit that helps storm victims in the Peeks Hill area. “I’d send out a message: ‘The recovery isn’t over. It isn’t even close.’”
During the spring and summer, A Rock Foundation distributed supplies to tornado victims from a storm-damaged house on Gilbert’s Ferry Road. Back then, it seemed absurd that people would donate winter coats to storm victims. But with cold weather coming on, Wheeler has distributed all that winter gear. And the cupboards are almost bare.
“People are done with storms,” she said. “When I say done, I mean they’re done. Nobody is thinking about it any more.”
Belinda Grower, who works with Wheeler, said it’s depressing to hack away at recovery when labor is in such short supply.
“The only volunteers we have right now are actually storm victims,” she said.
Wheeler said a few church groups are still sending small teams to help with the rebuilding, but it’s nowhere near the legion of volunteers seen in the storm zone in spring and summer. That’s partly because the storm aftermath isn’t on TV every day, she surmises. It’s also partly because there are kids in school and presents to shop for.
Morever, she said, it’s because people just don’t understand how deep the damage is.
“This is not our normal tornado, where recovery takes a few months,” Wheeler said. “This is going to take a long time. A year or 18 months.”
The April 27 storm cut a giant’s causeway across the county — a band of flattened trees and exploded houses that entered the county in Ohatchee and exited near Piedmont. Under that steamroller were entire communities — Read’s Mill, Webster’s Chapel, Peeks Hill, New Liberty. As seen from U.S. 431, the path of destruction is nearly a half mile wide.
The problem, Wheeler thinks, is that most people have seen only that view. In the weeks immediately after the storm, police and National Guardsmen kept sightseers out of the storm zone. Wheeler thinks people should take a drive in the zone now to see how much damage remains to be fixed.
“Unless you’ve been down in it, you don’t get it,” she said.
A house of cards
On April 28, Axelton thought he was one of the lucky ones. His house was still standing, which was good because he didn’t have home insurance.
But it was standing like a house of cards. The walls were detached from the roof, leading to the danger of collapse. Construction companies said it couldn’t be fixed, but it took five months to get FEMA to agree. In the meantime, Axelton and his wife lived in a tent, then a friend’s camper, then in a FEMA trailer.
With the $19,000 he got from FEMA, Axelton has already got a start on his new house. He’s poured a foundation with a storm shelter and started the process of raising the building. With the cash he has on hand, he can buy materials, but labor is hard to come by.
Right now it’s just Axelton, 52, who is on disability, and some older friends who drop in to help. At least it’s cool outside.
“We’re trucking along,” he said. He claims he’ll be done by Christmas, though it took him four weeks to finish the foundation and basement.
Getting done soon is important because FEMA trailers don’t stay forever. When Axelton got his, he was told he could have it for six months. There’s been talk of an extension to 12 months. But aid workers say 18 months is the longest anyone can stay in one of the trailers.
Wheeler said some never got a trailer, relying instead on networks of friends and family — networks that are getting threadbare seven months on.
“They’re just bouncing around from house to house,” she said.
JoAnn Taylor, whose house couldn’t be lived in after the storm, said she’s staying part of the time with her sister and part of the time with friends. The arrangement makes Thanksgiving plans difficult.
“I might do Thanksgiving with my sister, or we may go to a storage building on my property,” she said. “Or I might volunteer to work at a soup kitchen.”
Volunteers worry about how that will affect storm victims’ emotional health, come the holidays.
“My wife passed away last year, and I didn’t want to do Christmas with all her stuff around,” Nichols of the Baptist association said. “It was too painful.
“These folks have a different problem,” he continued. “They don’t have any of their stuff. When they get to the holidays and nothing is the same, it’s really going to hit home.”
For aid agencies, sounding the call for help can be difficult. Everyone agrees that volunteerism is way down. No one wants to offend the people who’ve already given their time or money.
At least money is still coming in. Earlier this month, the Community Foundation of Greater Birmingham gave the Long Term Recovery Committee $100,000. Most of it will be spent on building materials for new houses, said Curtis Simpson, director of the local United Way and treasurer for the recovery committee.
“The check is in the mail,” he said.
But when it gets here, the challenge will be finding people to hammer the nails. While $100,000 is a large sum for fundraisers, that money doesn’t last long when the goal is to build someone a house.
“It doesn’t take long for that to run out,” said Denise Rucker, chairwoman of the Long Term Recovery Committee. “Our standard house, about 1,100 square feet, costs about $40,000.”
Aid agency workers also say they’re hearing questions about the storm victims who remain homeless — questions they didn’t hear before. Questions like: Why didn’t they have insurance?
“Yes, it was their choice,” Wheeler said. “But this is not a rich community, and that affects the choices you make.”
Tim Axelton was living on a disability check before the storms. He thought he couldn’t fit insurance into his budget any more than he could fit a tree into a trailer.
“It’s hard to make it on $1,000 a month,” he said. “After your power bill is paid and you buy groceries and stuff, there’s not much left. I got caught with my britches down, but you can bet I’ll have insurance next time.”
Nichols saw the drought of volunteers coming months ago.
In spring, the storm zone was swarming with well-meaning laborers from across the country. He’s expecting a group from Ohio to come in soon; some churches still show up regularly to work. But there’s more work than there are people to do it.
He thinks the solution might be to break the work into smaller jobs, things that small groups can do in short spurts. Some of the home-repair projects in the area are two- or three-day jobs, he said.
“Maybe we could convince someone to gather people at their church to set aside just two or three days for this,” he said.
Aid agency workers say that in the slow holiday period, almost any help would be appreciated.
“If they’ve got a heart and want to help, or (if they) have some extra cash, we can use that,” said Rucker, of the recovery committee.
“If we had as many people today as we had in the spring,” said A Rock Foundation’s Wendi Wheeler, “we could build a house in a day.”