Ryan Claussen, right, hammers a tarp to the roof of Helen's Kitchen. Claussen, an instructor pilot with the 14th Student Squadron at Columbus Air Force Base, organized a group from the base to volunteer for storm cleanup Saturday. Photo by: Amanda Lien/Dispatch Staff
Volunteers with United Way remove cinder blocks from a backyard on North Seventh Street in Columbus. One month after a tornado damaged more than 300 homes and buildings in the city, volunteers are still needed to help with cleanup efforts.
Photo by: Amanda Lien/Dispatch Staff
March 23, 2019 10:06:45 PM
To Renee Sanders' surprise, not a single person who registered with United Way to volunteer for storm cleanup Saturday morning was a Columbus native.
"They're mostly from over at the (Columbus Air Force Base)," said the director of the United Way of Lowndes County. "But still, I've scanned in IDs from Florida, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania. ... We have people from all over coming here. It's really great."
A month after an EF-3 tornado ripped through parts of north and east Columbus, damaging 375 homes and doing $9.3 million worth of damage to city property, volunteers are still approaching Sanders asking what they can do to help with cleanup efforts. It works out well, Sanders said, because she's still getting calls from Columbus residents needing assistance with cleaning up their homes and businesses.
"We're limited in our abilities," she added. "We can't remove debris to a landfill, for example. But we can still tarp roofs, clear away tree branches. It just depends on the work orders we receive."
Sanders has been accepting calls for help and willing volunteers since Feb. 24, the day after the tornado touched down. She says her goal is to help Columbus residents affected by the tornado adjust to "a new normal."
"We have to remember that things have settled down, but it's not 'normal,'" she said. "It's a new normal that we have to get used to."
In East Columbus, 112 homes were deemed unlivable by assessors from the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency. Tarps covering damaged or destroyed roofs, porches and windows flap in the breeze and power lines that fell down during the storm lie coiled on the grass, disconnected and unused. Piles of tree trunks and branches line the right-of-ways for city workers to pick up.
Ryan Claussen, an instructor pilot with the 14th Student Squadron at CAFB, organized a group from the base. His group of about 10 volunteers made up the bulk of Saturday's volunteer force.
"We wanted to meet the need," Claussen said. "I wish we could have gotten a bigger group together, but we didn't know what kind of work needed to be done. Next time, I'm going to get more guys together."
Volunteers went to several homes and businesses in East Columbus, clearing out cinder blocks and tree branches from yards and nailing tarps over leaking roofs. One volunteer, who drove from Montana the day after the tornado touched down and has been in Columbus ever since, pulled two chainsaws from the back of his Jeep and began hacking away at tangles of brush and branches so they could be hauled to the curb. Claussen and two other men hammered down tarps and cleared debris from rooftops.
"I'm so thankful for (the volunteers)," said Helen Karriem, owner of Helen's Kitchen, a soul food restaurant on the north side of Columbus.
Karriem's business wasn't badly damaged -- some siding was torn off and the roof began to leak -- but the building behind hers was totally destroyed.
"For the tornado to have just missed me, and for (volunteers) to be willing to come and help with the roof. ... I'm blessed," she said. "I'm very blessed."
It's been difficult for Karriem to watch her neighborhood struggle, she said. Knowing there are still people who want to help a month after the storm encourages her.
"It says something about people, the way they care," she said.
Still awaiting emergency declaration
Columbus is still waiting on a federal emergency declaration, which is necessary before the bulk of the cleanup work can begin. MEMA and the Federal Emergency Management Agency completed a joint damage assessment last week, and have submitted their documentation for review at the federal level. If President Donald Trump signs a federal emergency declaration for Columbus, some residents will be eligible for financial assistance in rebuilding their homes or recovering from damages to their businesses.
However, there may be a long road there. MEMA Director of External Affairs Ray Coleman said there's no telling when, or if, a federal declaration will be signed. Until then, there's not much else that can be done.
"I've seen it happen within three days, 10 days, and I've seen it happen in over 30 days," he said. "There's just no way to know."
The city of Columbus has already accepted bids from debris monitoring and debris removal companies in preparation for a federal declaration. The debris monitoring company, Debris Tech, will be responsible for documenting the scope of the damage, as well as the cost of the work needed to remove the debris from homes and businesses. Debris monitoring is not on the list of services Columbus' contractor, J5, provides.
"(Debris monitoring) needs to be done a certain way in order to be eligible for reimbursement," Coleman said. "I wouldn't say it's a prerequisite to receiving federal aid, but it helps to have a company specializing in (debris monitoring) to get accurate documentation."
Coleman stressed that not everyone whose homes are damaged will be eligible for financial assistance from FEMA.
"They're only focused on restoring homes to a livable standard," he said. "That doesn't mean everyone is going to get the maximum amount of financial assistance possible. (FEMA) has to assess homes and determine what each of them need."
However, he said FEMA can also assist residents and business owners by connecting them with statewide rental and housing associations and nonprofits.
"There's a lot of things that FEMA can provide," he said. "There's a lot of different ways for residents to look for resources."
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