Starting on September 3, 2012, torrential rain and flash flooding from Hurricane Isaac overwhelmed several communities in Alabama’s Black Belt region, shutting down primary roads and displacing residents. The homes of more than fifty residents of Lowndes County, one of the Black Belt counties most heavily impacted by the hurricane, were damaged by the flooding, but their urgent requests for help were not met.
In Lowndes County, nearly three-quarters of the population is African American and 27% percent of residents live at or below the poverty level. It is located in Alabama’s Black Belt, home to some of the poorest counties in the United States, with high unemployment, poor access to health care, substandard housing, low high school graduation rates, high infant mortality, and poor infrastructure.
The Harris and Smith families live in Collirene, Alabama, a small, predominantly African American community in Lowndes County. Hurricane Isaac caused massive flooding in Collirene and both families were forced to flee their homes. They repeatedly contacted the sheriff’s office and the Lowndes County Emergency Management Agency (EMA) for help over a period of several days, but received no response. Finally, EMA officials directed them to call an organization some 130 miles away in Birmingham.
The Smith and Harris families had lost everything: clothes, furniture, and precious family keepsakes were gone. Within days of the storm, mold seeped into the ceilings, floors, and insulation of their homes and developed dangerous spores, making it unsafe for the families and their children to remain there. The Red Cross reported to the EMA that the Smiths, Harrises, and other families were living in hazardous conditions, due in part to residents’ lack of information and tools to identify and minimize the threat of respiratory infection caused by mold.
The experience of Lowndes County residents after Hurricane Isaac illustrates how emergency services and disaster relief agencies fail to reach residents living in poor, rural, predominantly African American communities, in part because standardized responses adopted by local, state, and federal agencies do not address the unique needs of these communities. For example, to qualify for federal relief that includes individual assistance to cover repairs or relocation expenses, at least 561 homes in the county must be completely damaged, but most Black Belt counties are too sparsely populated to ever meet that numerical threshold.
Policies that restrict Black Belt communities’ access to state and federal resources for disaster recovery — resources that are readily available to families and businesses in more affluent counties — contribute to poverty, inequality, and despair among too many Alabamanians, who continue to face a disproportionately difficult road to recovery after the storm.