“It’s Not Enough”: Sawyerville Tornado Victims Criticize Governor’s Lack of Assistance
As Alabama Governor Kay Ivey stepped out of her car onto the decimated wreckage of a small community in Sawyerville, she was met with equal comments praising and criticizing the state's response to the recent disaster.
One group joined together to chant "Thank you, Lord," and "Thank you, Governor," interchangeably, while still others shouted, wailed and pleaded for help, saying they have received very little so far.
The small town in Hale County was ravaged by an EF-2 tornado last Thursday, February 3, which left one person dead and several others injured.
Three individuals, who were in the same household where the fatality occurred, still remain in critical condition at DCH Regional Medical Center in Tuscaloosa. Seven more people have since been treated for non-life-threatening injuries.
The majority of the damage occurred around County Roads 17 and 30, with significant structural and tree damage found nearby along the rural Mason Bend Road.
This was the same area Ivey visited around the same time last year to survey damage caused by another tornado.
"It's just tragic that just a year later, after this community was building back, it gets hit again," Ivey said. "It's devastating. The residences, their mobile homes are just not there. Most folks here I'm told don't have insurance."
Sawyerville was also slightly impacted by the April 27, 2011 tornadoes that tore across the state. That time, the town received federal assistance due to the storm's impact statewide.
In the wake of this storm, though, the story is not the same, although the localized impact to the community was much more significant. The reasoning is this: according to several state and local officials, the extent of the damage to such a concentrated area may not qualify for anything other than local relief efforts.
"I feel like they're gonna qualify for low-interest loans... I don't think there was enough damage in the state to qualify for FEMA [assistance]," said Alabama EMA Director Brian Hastings.
Hastings said the goal for the governor's visit was to "build a narrative" for Ivey to present in a bid to secure federal aid, but he was not optimistic.
"This type of disaster - and it is completely an utter, devastating disaster for this community - is one of those 20- to 30,000 disasters that happen every year that doesn't get any federal assistance."
While addressing the media, Ivey was asked about the ongoing need for storm shelters in the area. She agreed with the sentiment, but could not give any concrete answers about how to achieve that goal.
According to notes from the Office of the Governor, six community storm shelters have been planned for Hale County, but none will be ready for the upcoming severe weather season typically recognized as running from the first of March through the end of May.
Instead, Ivey said that local efforts must take center stage, and that's where the majority of Sawyerville's assistance must come from, but did not comment on future-proofing the community ahead of the next natural disaster.
"It's so important that local folks are helping local folks. That's the best thing about being in Alabama... That's a close relationship that most states and their people don't have," Ivey said. "We're here to listen to the local leaders, hear what y'all need, and then we'll put out heads together and see what we can do."
"That assistance has come... It's a local disaster. Locals come together." Hastings said, as a resident loudly sobbed behind him near the road, sitting in a pile of wreckage that used to be a home.
Both Ivey and Hastings mentioned the local relief efforts that are already in place: some local agencies are temporarily paying for displaced residents' hotel rooms, the Pickens County, Tuscaloosa County and Alabama EMA have coordinated with Hale County EMA Director Russell Weeden to donate tarps to prevent further environmental damage to homes.
Other assistance has come from smaller faith-based organizations, the American Red Cross, Home Depot, Alabama Forestry, Alabama Baptist Association, Here to Serve of Tuscaloosa, Alabama Catfish Farmers Association and several others.
"Y'all just stay strong, keep your faith, keep on helping one another, and we'll have to find a way to find some help for all of you," Ivey said. "It's gonna take some time to build back, it's just not an overnight thing. A tornado took out a whole lot in just minutes. It's gonna take days and months, we'll keep trying."
"We can't stay in a hotel for this long of a period of time, we can't afford that. How long until this assistance stops coming?" asked Shelia Green, a Sawyerville resident.
She spoke on behalf of the rest of her family, standing in the spot where her home say just a week ago. Now, it's completely leveled, a dirt field. Originally from Greene County, she moved to Sawyerville to live with her now-husband. To her, this community is her home.
She's a mother to a newborn son and spoke to the fact that despite the plentiful local assistance, many times already she's seen resources she needs run out, especially diapers.
"I hear y'all say 'that's not enough damage.' Well, how much do we need?" Green said. "We here in Mason Bend need the help, I don't have nothing... I can't pay back loans! If I could, I wouldn't be out here begging for any help."
The Thread asked Green after Ivey's address if she believed that she'd keep her promises to fight for more assistance:
"I felt a little better. It seems like she's going to do something. She's going to do the best she can," Green said. "She gave us hope, and that's all we can do, is hold on."
A lifelong resident spoke directly to Ivey at the conclusion of her address, pleading for the entire community's sake that Sawyerville get some immediate assistance.
"We ain't talking about next month, we ain't talking about next year. We want to come home. When you were first running for governor, my friends asked 'is she capable to run the State of Alabama?'" He said. "I was behind you, I pulled everybody to come with you... This is the time we really need you now. I'm crying out from my heart, will you please help us this time?"
Ivey, who flew into Sawyerville via helicopter, was out of Hale County 30 minutes later.