We were in Montgomery when tornados devastated downtown Selma, on January 12, hitting urban and rural regions across Georgia and Alabama, and killing at least eight people. In the morning we had considered riding to Selma, stopping to take in the art and public history sites erected by the National Park Service, that commemorate the three 1965 Civil Rights Marches between the two cities, but decided instead to stay out of the car. We were in the Alabama State History museum, a perfect fortress for waiting out a storm, when the tornado hit. We were oblivious to it. The tornado skirted Montgomery but there were high winds and rain that we missed. Our walk back from the government buildings on Goat Hill to the Hilltops neighborhood where the Legacy Memorial to lynching victims sits, was blustery, but nothing more.
The next morning we rode north, occasionally passing a mile of forest newly decimated by tornados. But it was hard to discern what was the storm of nature and what was storm of neglect and poverty that left so many structures roofless, windowless, and tattered.
So ubiquitous is the detritus of once-housing in Alabama, that I don’t even know how to write about it. I feel I am being insensitive mentioning what is accepted and normal. The Montgomery neighborhood a block from the Legacy Memorial, where we stayed in a rooming house, newly-refurbished but still in a yard filled with the trash of former buildings, was next to empty houses half-burned. As we walked the blocks of the neighborhood we passed houses well-trimmed and well-lived on blocks in which 2/3 (I counted) of the houses were in ruins. I did not want to take pictures and engage in poverty-porn. I hope I do not do such damage with my words. I’d like to maintain that people deserve better.
With the victims of Alabama’s tornados, political and natural, in my thoughts, I remembered some of the storm damage from hurricane Ian we witnessed a month ago on Daytona Beach. There, temporarily, and in one small way, the storm reversed it’s usual socio-economic course which devastates people without resources the most.
Usually, people who have no home insurance, no health insurance, no storm cellars, no getaway cars or relatives with big houses, are the ones that pay the heaviest cost of nature’s wrath. But in Daytona Beach, in one way at least, and certainly temporarily, the storm had democratized the beach.The city had recovered public accesses to the water. Hotels that dominate the waterfront however, calculating a profit loss, had laid off their workers and were operating half-staff. Rather than fix their private walkways to the “most beautiful beach in the world” that allow visitors their own pathway without seeing the numbers of people in Daytona sleeping outside with all their possessions in trash bags, they left their retaining walls in ruins, directing their guests to use the public paths. So now, both tourists and people without homes share the same space as they walk, passing mangled signs that read PRIVATE WAY. DO NOT ENTER WITHOUT A HOTEL KEY, to the public parkways and beach stairs and driveways, down to the sea.