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‘Times of disaster are a wake-up’

Beyond the areas that were hardest-hit by tornadoes in the spring of 2011, dozens of other communities suffered devastating damage and loss of life.

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Habitat for Humanity affiliates in about 20 cities and rural areas responded quickly to the deadly storm systems last April and May, pitching in to do whatever they could to help in the immediate aftermath and then taking on leadership roles in the long-term recovery.

A year later, the rebuilding continues. In most cases, disaster response has become a crucial part of each affiliate’s overall mission of eliminating poverty housing.

Here is a sampling of their stories.

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‘Everyone started to work together’
“Times of disaster are a wake-up to remind us of how interconnected our community is and how important it is to work together,” said Pam Dorr, executive director of Habitat for Humanity of Hale County in Greensboro, Alabama. “When we work together, more families can be served.”

Immediately after the tornadoes hit April 27, Hale County affiliate staff and some regular volunteers helped clear roadways, tended to the wounded and started assessing damage.

In the weeks following the tornadoes, the affiliate had volunteer crews running seven days a week, helping families in need of critical home repairs. Staff members volunteered every day at the donation distribution center.

Within a month, Hale County Habitat and its community partners had developed a rapid permanent rehousing plan and begun to work with families to rebuild.

“After construction began for the new homes, people started to have faith that rebuilding in our devastated community was possible,” Dorr said. “Everyone started to work together.”

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Lessons learned
Habitat affiliates throughout the tornado zone adapted quickly as the situation evolved. Bruce Day, executive director of Rome and Floyd County Habitat for Humanity in Georgia, turned his affiliate’s ReStore into a distribution site after last spring’s storms. Volunteers handed out water, cleaning supplies and some furniture to people in need.

Also, based on their experiences in that storm and in two tornadoes that followed in less than a year, affiliate leaders have committed to coordinate a tarp installation program in collaboration with the local COAD (Community Organizations Active in Disasters).

“In each of these disasters, there have been homeowners who have incorrectly installed tarps,” he said. “When that happens, the home is inadequately protected and the tarp is wasted.”

The storms also inspired the affiliate leaders to set up a Disaster Resource Center in their ReStore. A computer station allows anyone to find information about preparing for disasters and recovering when the worst happens.

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The silver lining
“The disaster was a terrible thing, but as with all things, there is some good,” said Greg Miller, executive director of Habitat for Humanity of Athens/Limestone County in Alabama. “We are firmly entrenched in disaster recovery for our area. Fundraising took a hit, but it will recover. Visibility for Habitat has increased a large amount due to our rebuilding efforts.”

As with most affiliates — especially small, rural ones — raising revenue is an ongoing challenge. Disasters might stretch resources, but they also tend to bring out everyone’s generosity and attract new supporters.

In Calhoun County, Alabama, the affiliate took a house donated by Bank of America and spent about $45,000 making it wheelchair-accessible for Chris Rodgers and his family. Rodgers and his two children were thrown from their home when the tornado hit, and he was permanently paralyzed.

“The community has rallied around the Rodgers family,” said Ron Hindman, executive director of Calhoun County Habitat for Humanity. “One barbershop has promised him free haircuts for life. Singer Taylor Swift contributed $1,500 to the project, and some University of Alabama players visited him in the hospital.”

A year after the storm, Hindman said, some residents are still struggling to recover. “But fundraising and volunteer recruitment are going well,” he said. “In fact, in the coming weeks, a group of about 30 is coming down from Connecticut to help with building.”

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Neighbors in need
Steve Scharfenberg, president of the board of directors of Gadsden-Etowah Habitat for Humanity, said the volunteer base is solid and fundraising is steady. The long-term relationships built with local volunteers allowed the affiliate to help nearby counties after last spring’s storms.

“Two of our volunteers have logged numerous hours on a house for storm victims the next county over,” Scharfenberg said. “One of them has put in more than 200 hours.”

Because most of Etowah County was not directly hit by the April 27 tornadoes, the affiliate was able to step in quickly to help the neighboring counties. Immediately after the storms, the affiliate donated about 200 pounds of surplus roofing nails to the recovery effort.

After a disaster, partnerships spring up throughout the Habitat network. Habitat for Humanity of Madison County, Alabama, partnered with Asbury United Methodist Church to rebuild two storm-damaged homes in the Harvest community. The affiliate also partnered with Habitat of Marion County and the Redstone Arsenal to rebuild several homes in the devastated Hackleburg area. Volunteers assembled wall frames in Huntsville and drove them to Hackleburg.

Madison County Habitat also speeded up the creation of its A Brush with Kindness program to offer critical home repair to victims of the storm. The Jane K. Lowe Charitable Foundation provided a grant of $100,000 for the pilot phase.

Habitat for Humanity of Catoosa County, Georgia, has teamed up with Amish volunteers and the local Community Organizations Active in Disasters to roof a number of houses and build three from scratch since last spring.

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Building back better
Natural disasters are a great equalizer, wreaking havoc on poor and rich neighborhoods without discrimination. Lower-income communities, though, typically have far fewer resources to devote to rebuilding.

The tornado that struck North Minneapolis on May 22 devastated a neighborhood that was already mired in chronically poor housing and economic conditions. More than 4,000 homes were damaged — about 200 of them badly enough to at least temporarily displace the occupants.

Twin Cities Habitat for Humanity staffers spent the first frantic days after the storm meeting emergency needs and answering homeowners’ questions about how to find shelter, how to deal with insurance and how to avoid scams.

At the same time, affiliate leaders dispatched several experienced construction supervisors and AmeriCorps members to help remove the mountains of debris and fallen tree limbs. Within a matter of days, streets and sidewalks were passable.

On June 4 — less than two weeks after the tornado — Twin Cities Habitat partnered with the city and Northside community groups to organize a mass volunteer cleanup effort. Nearly 2,000 people turned out, all registered and trained by affiliate volunteer coordinators.

It was an inspiring day, affiliate leaders reported, but it was just a beginning to the long, hard work ahead.

Since the storm, Twin Cities Habitat has been working in partnership with the Northside Community Response Team, a coalition of more than 60 agencies, congregations and neighborhood groups, to restore North Minneapolis and make it even stronger.

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Return to the series home page:
‘You can see hope here’: One year after the 2011 tornadoes