Preventing Unraveling: Community Responses to Natural Disaster
In the days after a major tornado, I saw my community do the important and necessary work that outsiders and charity can’t.
A year ago today, a tornado hit my hometown of Greensboro, North Carolina. It tore up the East Side of the city, the side that is poor, black, and already hard hit. It destroyed my son’s school, forcing the entire student body to move into another school — one that was already overcrowded, underfunded, and busting at the seams. And it destroyed homes, so many homes.
I used to live in the Midwest, in a city where the tornado sirens were tested every Friday at noon. But here in North Carolina, tornados are… or used to be… rare. The tornado that struck Greensboro seems to be the harbinger of a new normal: Increasingly destructive weather events brought on by a rapidly changing global climate and fueled by the gluttony of capital. And this new normal is unmasking an old truth: That we are a stratified and deeply unequal country, with fault lines that run along race and class that we are woefully unprepared, and perhaps unwilling, to change.
But in the first hours and days after the tornado hit, while the power was still out and streets were still impassable, neighbors took in neighbors, teachers walked to find their students, ministers called on their congregations, shopkeepers opened their doors. The community swelled in a way that only the people who know the dirty secrets of our upside-down economy and the dark sides of our shared histories can.
April 16th, 2018. After work, I grabbed my chainsaw and headed to Trina’s house. Her home was thankfully unscathed by the tornado, but a tree had blocked her car in and she had missed work. One more missed day and she will lose that job, so we figured since we can’t lift the car, we might have better luck cutting up the tree.
Streets were shut down all over the East Side, downed power lines, debris, trees. There was a van clear flipped on top of itself on English Street. It took me forever to get to Trina’s, I had to re-route through blocked streets and skirt tangled knots of metal, so by the time I arrived her neighbors had chopped up the entire tree. I feebly busied myself stacking up the remaining wood on the curb to feel helpful.
We sat on her steps looking out over the street where vinyl siding had peeled off houses like half pulled bandaids and pink insulation was caught high up in the trees. A group of little boys were busy piling up broken limbs into a lean-to fort against a stalled Buick.
My God, she said. My God. She wasn’t finding the words. My God, she kept saying.
But there is really only so long you can wait for the words to come — and communities like this rarely have that sort of time.
I don’t know what it is about tornadoes and floods and hurricanes but they always seem to plow through the poor parts of town — the places that are hardscrabble and hurting and just trying to keep things together the best they can. It’s like the eye of the storm can see the yellowed tape we use to hold things together and it sees it fraying at the edges and just can’t resist giving it that last tug.
Or maybe it’s just that there are so many poor places in our rich towns that if you throw a rock you are just gonna hit one anyway. Or maybe our rich towns aren’t so rich after all: Maybe it’s just the people who draw the maps and name the places and put up the statues and say all the things… maybe it’s just them who can afford to go out for a beer.
We know we can’t.
But I guess a tornado sucks off your roof no matter who you are or what side of town you’re on. A tornado is going to pull your mattress clear out the window and lay it down on the lawn, stripped of its sheets, no matter where you come from. It’s going to carve a four-mile trail through a city in 10 minutes flat — giving the town 10 minutes of equality that it might never see again.
But after that 10 minutes, everything is different again. Stratified again. Segregated. Here, on the East Side, where life is precariously balanced between service sector wages and eviction notices and the Rent-a-Center repo truck coming to get your damn sofa set, here an Act of God marks the beginning of a great unraveling.
For God’s sake, Trina’s tree didn’t even hit anything , she should be considered lucky. It wasn’t laying across power lines or her roof like the other trees on the block — but where it landed was just as serious as if it did. That tree was blocking her from getting to work. And Trina doesn’t get to work jobs with paid days off and an understanding employer: She knows she is as replaceable as you can get.
Trina’s job means everything to her. I guess we all say that, but this is different. Not only does it house her and feed her, but it’s also the way she can get her kids back. Right now, her children live in foster care across town — they are safe (Praise Jesus, she whispers under her breath). Trina had tried and tried to leave her abusive ex but became homeless every time she did. The children were removed from her care and she needs to be employed for three months and in her own home alone for five before she can have them back with her.
If she can’t get around that tree, the unraveling begins.
Even on sunny days, traffic tickets and unpaid court costs unravel lives here. Suspensions and criminal referrals for school fights that in a different era and with a different skin color were downright James Dean-esque unravel lives here. Missing a utility payment or losing the meat in your freezer unravels lives here. Overheated radiators unravel lives. Employers downsizing unravels lives. Streamlining business and someone else’s profit margin unravels lives. But nobody comes for Acts of Man. Just Acts of God.
You have to be from here to understand the unraveling. That is why you see the community respond like it has in Greensboro: Instinctually and without hesitation.
As I tried to get to Trina, the corners were full of small church groups handing out bottled water and hot meals; families without power had bar-b-ques going, grilling meat before it spoiled and sharing with passers-by. Calls were out on social media for donations to be dropped off at so-and-so’s house or on the steps that little cinder block church with the name written in red paint right there on the door, the one that has the gravel lot and the fish-fry every second Sunday.
The big charities will come later. Many of them will help tremendously, bringing wealth, commodities, attention, and access that these communities are rarely afforded when they are not being struck by an Act of God. But right now, the day after the storm, it is us just Trina and her neighbors, the mosque on the corner, Black Lives Matter, and the neighborhood free clinic — all the people who know that they must tie up this knot quickly like a suture to stop the bleeding, to lessen the unraveling. They know that they must shore up their self-worth, articulate their autonomy, and revel in their own power and greatness before becoming the objects of charity as the weeks wear thin.
I love these moments in which our communities can taste their own capacity, their own greatness; when they can experience their own autonomy before the roads are cleared and the charitable occupiers make their way in.
No matter how messy, no matter how hard, no matter how poor, how round-about and inefficient, and even no matter how incorrigible it may sometimes be, my heart will always belong to Trina and the cinder block church and the neighborhood clinic, the activists making sandwiches, the librarians collecting non-perishables, the neighbors with the chainsaws, and the kids building a magical fort out of debris. They cannot bring in the big bulldozers, the dump trucks or the tractor-trailers of bottled water, but they can do the work of inspiriting, the work of emancipation, the work no one else knows to touch.