BY SUSAN LAMONT
BIRMINGHAM, Alabama - Working people here in central Alabama are still reeling from one of the worst tornadoes in state history, which left 34 dead, hundreds seriously injured, and thousands homeless.
On the night of April 8, a tornado ripped apart more than 1,000 homes across three counties here. The coal mining community of Oak Grove was completely flattened and damage to several other communities was severe. Among those killed were many retirees - two coal miners, two school teachers, a domestic worker, a steelworker, and a nurse - as well as a trucker, a hospital worker, a Walmart worker, a beautician, and a cast iron pipe worker.
Jefferson County officials initially reported 1,023 homes were completely destroyed; they then revised the estimate to say 443 were destroyed, 275 suffered major damage, and 459 had minor damage. Many of the affected homes were trailers.
Workers throughout the region responded with solidarity immediately after the devastating storm, including union members at U.S. Steel's Fairfield Works. Many of the areas hit were working-class communities and old mining camps located only a few miles from the basic steel mill in Fairfield, just west of Birmingham. A lot of steelworkers live in or near the areas affected.
"It looks like they've been bombed," said one U.S. Steel worker. A retired member of United Steelworkers of America (USWA) Local 2122, Pat Sullivan, was killed in the storm. Another, William Browning, lost his wife Cheryl. Others sustained major damage to their homes and property.
USWA Local 2122's building was temporarily turned over to the Red Cross, which used the union hall as one of the sites to organize relief efforts. Along with USWA Local 1013, which also organizes some workers at Fairfield Works, two plant-gate collections have raised $16,000. The union also requested the use of some of the company's heavy equipment to help clear trees and other debris left by the storm.
Inside the mill, workers poured money into collections for those union members hardest hit. Siegfried Powell, 33, who works in the slab yard at U.S. Steel, spent Saturday, April 11, after the storm delivering donations of food and water to Pratt City, a predominantly Black community located a few miles from the mill and one of the areas that sustained severe damage. He explained that while state troopers, police, and other officials were quickly dispatched to predominantly white neighborhoods immediately after the storm, people in Pratt City had to wait several days for such aid.
"The people in Pratt City are steelworkers, rail workers, people who work in cafeterias," Powell said. "The city can throw together millions to repair [sports stadium] Legion Field, and yet there are people a few miles away who are homeless. Why is it that we are the ones who make this city so rich, and yet we're the last to be helped?"
A statement to the media was also released by Ronald Truss, president of the Metro Birmingham Branch of the NAACP. "The slow and incomplete relief to the black community is unacceptable for now and in the future," Truss said. "The Black community"is not a "second class."
In an effort to defuse these protests President William Clinton visited tornado areas here April 15 for three hours, making sure the TV cameras were rolling when he stopped at several of the affected Black communities. He promised that federal money would immediately be available to help victims. It was announced that the Small Business Administration had already approved $600,000 in loans to homeowners and renters at 4 percent interest.
But callers to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which is the government clearing house for disaster aid, learned that getting assistance may not be all that easy. Applicants for loans must submit to a credit check and a determination of their income level. The agency tells callers point blank that loans will not be approved if FEMA decides an applicant's income is insufficient to repay the loan later.
Workers turned down can apply for an outright cash grant, but they receive significantly less money than if granted a loan. Other workers report difficulty in getting insurance claims settled for the full amount of damage costs.
Kristin Meriam, newly announced candidate for Alabama governor on the Socialist Workers Party ticket, called for an immediate, federally funded campaign to help rebuild and repair all the homes affected by the April 8 tornado. "This would help provide jobs for the many unemployed and underemployed workers in the state," Meriam, a USWA member, noted. "Sufficient relief funds should be granted to all victims, not just those the federal government deems `credit- worthy.' Free medical care must be available to all those injured."
Susan LaMont is a member of USWA Local 2122 at U.S.
Steel's Fairfield Works.
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