President Donald Trump on Thursday declared the March 19 storms that wrecked Jacksonville, Wellington, Angel, Nances Creek and other areas a major disaster.
An announcement about the disaster was posted to the White House website Friday morning, dated April 26. A spokesman in the office of Gov. Kay Ivey had earlier Friday morning confirmed that state officials had learned of the declaration Thursday night.
Local and state officials earlier this month said the tornadoes had caused $35.8 million in damage not covered by insurance in Calhoun and three other counties. That was well more than a $7 million threshold to be considered for a federal declaration.
The declaration means federal money will be available to help local governments pay the cost of cleanup, and to help individuals with uninsured damage.
The announcement from the White House said that people living in Calhoun, Cullman and Etowah counties are eligible to apply for individual assistance. Local governments and some other agencies will be eligible for help in those counties, as well as St. Clair County.
“It is exciting news,” said Jacksonville Mayor Johnny Smith. The city expects debris cleanup to cost around $4 million, Smith said. The City Council agreed earlier this month to dip into a reserve fund to pay for the ongoing cleanup.
Smith said on Friday morning that he didn’t know what costs the declaration would cover. He said he’d like to see money for a storm shelter for the northeastern part of town.
According to the announcement, individuals can get help paying for temporary housing and home repairs, as well as low-cost loans to cover uninsured property losses. Residents and business owners affected by the storms can apply for help at disasterassistance.gov, or by calling 1-800-621-FEMA (3362) or 1-800-462-7585 (TTY) for the hearing- and speech-impaired.
FEMA assistance could cover rent for people displaced from their homes, grants for home repairs not covered by insurance and unemployment payments up to 26 weeks for people who lost work as a result of the storms, according to a press release from FEMA.
Asked about specifics of what would be available to storm victims, FEMA regional spokeswoman Mary Hudak said much depends on the resources already available to the person who fills out an application. For instance, she said, rent wouldn’t be covered if an applicant is going to be reimbursed for rent by an insurance company.
“Each individual need to contact us to describe their situation,” she said.
The declaration comes nearly five weeks after the storm, weeks in which the county’s uninsured storm victims have found other ways to get by.
“I’ve been through a lot in life,” said Jerry Yates, who lives on Ninth Street in Jacksonville. “I’ve learned to accept what happened and move on.”
Unemployed since September, Yates let his homeowner’s insurance lapse as part of a more general belt-tightening. Then the storm brought a tree through the sliding-glass door in his dining room.
“It’s the worst storm I’ve seen and I was in typhoons when I was in the Navy, aboard ship,” he said.
Yates went without electricity for a month. Half of his house looks like it’s under construction, with bare Sheetrock in place of the glass door and wood framing where interior walls would be. In his kitchen and dining room, he can look up through the rafters to his mostly blue-tarp roof, which bathes the house in blue light.
The charity group Samaritan’s Purse did much of the roof work, he said, and he’s working with folks at First Baptist of Jacksonville to get it finished. An electrician volunteered to get his house ready for the grid. Yates doesn’t know what FEMA will offer him, but he said he’s willing to apply for aid.
“I’ve never wanted anything given to me,” said Nances Creek resident Stan Barnwell, who lost his house in the storm. “I’ve never wanted to ask for help, and I’ve always tried to be the one who helps. But I’m going to ask for help.”
The storm scraped Barnwell’s house off its foundation and left Barnwell stuck in his Buick LeSabre for an hour, pinned under a cattle feed bin that struck the driver’s side.
Since then, he’s lived with relatives, he said. He said he hoped FEMA would help him rebuild — and he said he’d insure his house next time around. Technically homeless, Barnwell still says the days since the storm have been some of the best of his life, because it brought him closer to God.
“I’ve got a mansion when I get to heaven,” he said. “From that day, I’ve had a peace that’s indescribable.”
According to FEMA’s website, an application for assistance takes about 18 to 20 minutes to fill out. Applicants have to be U.S. citizens and need a phone number to complete the online application, but Hudak said people without phones can list a friend’s number or a shelter where they can be reached. Applicants answer a series of questions about the damage they incurred, whether they’re renters or owners, and whether they’re insured.
People who fill out the online form can expect to hear from a FEMA inspector within three to five days, Hudak said. Applicants don’t ask for a specific type of assistance, Hudak said. FEMA, after the inspection, will tell them what’s available.
FEMA and local officials have been quick to point out that home-repair grants typically cover only repairs that are not covered by insurance and are necessary to make houses safe and sanitary.
“It’s not going to rebuild a house, but it’s a step in the right direction,” said Shannon Jenkins, director of the local United Way and a member of the local Long-Term Recovery Committee, a group of nonprofits working on storm victims’ long-term needs.
The committee so far has raised about $149,000 for storm recovery, with $91,000 of the money earmarked by donors to go to storm victims in Jacksonville. Jenkins said the Jacksonville money can be spent anywhere in the Jacksonville ZIP code, which stretches from Angel eastward through Jacksonville and over the mountain into Nances Creek.
To donate to the Long-Term Recovery Committee, go to yourcommunityfirst.org.