Post-Tornadoes, Southerners Cope With Homelessness

Originally published on May 18, 2011 11:41 am
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We wanted to know more about how people are coping. So we found Lavongee Battle. She's living in a shelter with her four-year-old son after a tornado nearly destroyed her home in Tuscaloosa. She's with us now from the studios of NPR member station WUAL in Tuscaloosa. Lavongee, thanks for joining us.

LAVONGEE BATTLE: Thank you, glad to be here.

MARTIN: Also joining us is Gena Robinson of the American Red Cross, which runs the shelter where Lavongee and her son are staying. And she also joins us from NPR member station WUAL in Tuscaloosa. Gena, thank you for joining us as well.

GENA ROBINSON: Thank you so much for having us.

MARTIN: Lavongee, let me just say I'm so sorry for what you're going through and it just must be very frightening. Can you just tell us - and apologize for bringing this up, 'cause I'm sure this isn't your favorite topic - but what actually happened to your house?

BATTLE: Well, everything got dark for a second and, you know, we heard the real loud whistling noise. And then, like, I guess as soon as it started it was over. And we had trees on it, like I had one big tree in the back, one on the side and the power lines and things were down. The windows were blown out and a lot of the roofing came off as well.

MARTIN: So there's just no way you can live in that house?


MARTIN: And so now that you've been staying at the shelter, what are the conditions there? For example, can you go to work? What's going on?

BATTLE: I can go to work, but my son is a little traumatized right now and I really don't want to leave him. He's four and he's having to - I don't know - he wants me to hold him all the time. Want to stay with me all the time. I can't be out of his sight for like more than five minutes without him whining and, you know, wondering where I am. So I'm sitting there trying to deal with all of this at the same time. So right now it's a little hard.

MARTIN: As I understand it, the house where you had been living was walking distance to your job, where you were a counselor, ironically enough, at a mental health facility. But now it's harder to get there from where you are now. Is that right? Because you don't have a car.

BATTLE: No, no, I don't.

MARTIN: And what about your son? What was he doing all day?

BATTLE: My mom would keep him for me while I worked. So, he kind of misses that right now, but he's fine now and he was in a daycare over here, but everyone had to leave. So he's a little bit more back where he started from.

MARTIN: So it's kind of hard to get him back on a schedule.

BATTLE: It is, 'cause he's not sleeping, he's not eating, he's just starting to play a little bit more. But he's missing the people from the daycare room. So it's kind of hard on him right now.

MARTIN: Gena, can I turn to you now? How typical is Lavongee's story? Are there a lot of people in the same boat?

ROBINSON: And so we're working very hard to really link people up with transportation and with job opportunities to make sure that everyone can get back on their feet as quickly as possible.

MARTIN: Now, we understand that about 2,000 people lost their homes. We're just talking Tuscaloosa alone. But there are about 100 people at this shelter. Is that right?

ROBINSON: It's difficult. People want to stay nearby doctors, nearby friends, nearby school districts that they're in, because this is their network and this is how people have supported themselves.

MARTIN: And if you could just tell us a little bit more about what some of the circumstances are that are people are facing.

ROBINSON: Kids are going to school. The school bus comes and picks them up. Other people are still able to go to work if they have cars. We also have a bus route that's now kind of been added on to the shelter to get people downtown. We have FEMA people on site at the shelter to try to help people apply for and find and fund new housing.

MARTIN: And there were deaths in the area. There were, as we understand it, there were more than 300 deaths associated with that line of storms across the South where Alabama was the hardest hit. Are there people there, Gena, who are also dealing with loss of family members?

ROBINSON: These teams are made up of nurses, mental health professionals, along with case workers who can provide really precise casework to the family - referrals for food and clothing and try to meet all the necessities that come along with such a high-impact storm.

MARTIN: Is there any housing available? Was there any available housing stock? As I understand it from the mayor, Walt Maddox, the mayor of Tuscaloosa, has estimated that more than 5,000 buildings were destroyed in the area. So is there any available housing?

ROBINSON: There is some available housing in the city of Tuscaloosa. It's getting harder to find, but we're really working very hard with Housing and Urban Development and with FEMA to link people up with housing that will meet their needs.

MARTIN: And, Lavongee, can we talk to you? What are you thinking now? What are your prospects? Have you gone to look for permanent housing? Is your insurance company telling you anything about when your house might be fit to return to?

BATTLE: Everyone's been out, you know, to inspect it and the insurance company's been there, the adjuster's been there. So it's looking like, since it has to be rewired, that it may take another, I don't know, a couple weeks, maybe, to a month. Because it has to be re-inspected once the wiring is done, before we can actually move in again. So it's going to be a little while.

MARTIN: And, finally, Lavongee, I was asking how your son was doing. How are you doing?

BATTLE: I'm fine. If it, you know, wasn't for my son with the nightmares and the jumping and everything, I think we can get along with a little bit better. But since I'm having to go through that, it's a little hard on me watching him go through that and not being able to do anything for him. So - but other than that, I'm fine.

MARTIN: OK. Well, our best wishes are with you.

BATTLE: Thank you.

MARTIN: We're thinking about you. We'll keep a good thought for you and for your son.

BATTLE: Thanks.

MARTIN: Also with us, Gena Robinson. She works with the mid-Alabama Red Cross and she was also with us from WUAL in Tuscaloosa. And I thank you both so much for joining us, and I - our best wishes to you both.

ROBINSON: Thank you very much.

BATTLE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.