Post-Tornadoes, Southerners Cope With Homelessness

More than 2000 homes were destroyed in Tuscaloosa, Ala. during the April 27 tornadoes. The community is working through local organizations to shelter storm victims who've lost their homes. Host Michel Martin speaks with Lavongee Battle, who's been living in a shelter with her four-year-old, and Gena Robinson of the Red Cross of Mid-Alabama, which runs the shelter housing Battle.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host: I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up later in the program, we'll look at the new fall television lineups. We'll hear about the next potential hits and misses. And we'll hear about whether last year's diverse casting trend is still hot or not. And we'll also hear what happened when a screenwriter pitched what she calls a Middle East version of "The Cosby Show." That's a little later in the program.

But first, more on this extreme weather that's causing so much havoc in the lives of real people, not the ones on TV. We're going back to Alabama, where the deadly tornadoes that ripped through the South last month have thousands of people homeless. The American Red Cross, which is running temporary shelters in the region, says that more than 2,000 homes were destroyed in the city of Tuscaloosa alone, including entire neighborhoods.

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?

BATTLE: No.

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: You know, every person in a shelter is different and the Red Cross really works very hard to meet all of their needs as best we can. But there are several young families in a shelter who are dealing with daycare issues, people who have been displaced and are now far from work or people whose jobs were blown away in the storms.

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: There were about 2,000 homes that were destroyed in the city of Tuscaloosa. Yes, that's correct. But we did have 87 people sleeping at the shelter last night. So we believe that people are staying with friends and family or have found hotel rooms, or some have moved out of state or just farther away to be able to continue working, to continue getting kids to school.

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: People are working through all of the different stages of coping with a disaster. We've got disaster mental health workers in the shelter every single day and going out into the community as well, to make sure that people are coping as they're dealing with loss of job or other children who have been traumatized, like Lavongee was talking about her son, by the storm and to get back to what normal was.

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: Some people may be. We try really hard not to advertise that. What we do have are what are called integrated care teams that are going out house to house, street to street, and shelter to shelter if need be, to find and try to bring comfort to people in need, people who have been injured or who have lost loved ones in the storm.

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: Lavongee Battle lost her home in the storms that damaged the South last month. She and her four-year-old son have been staying at a Red Cross shelter in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, which is one of the hardest hit areas in that string of storms. And we talked with her from member station WUAL in Tuscaloosa.

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.

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