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Sharon Coffman with the Coosa County Long Term Recovery Committee addresses the crowd of tornado survivors and others during the community meeting. Photo by Christa Jennings
Judge of Probate Richard Dean speaks to the crowd at the Coosa County Long Term Recovery Committee’s community meeting for the January 12 tornado survivors. Photo by Christa Jennings
Donna Brown, an Equality tornado survivor and advisory on the Long Term Recovery Committee, speaks to attendees during the meeting. Photo by Christa Jennings
By Christa Jennings
Senior Staff Writer
The Coosa County Long Term Recovery Committee, or LTRC, held a community meeting Sunday evening for survivors of the January 12 tornado that impacted southern Coosa County and has left many in the Equality and surrounding communities still recovering.
The meeting primarily served as a time to answer questions and provide information and resources to survivors in an organized manner at a central location. It also allowed survivors and others to meet and fellowship together, while also recognizing first responders and others who responded to provide assistance immediately following the devastating tornado.
Sharon Coffman, chair of the LTRC, welcomed everyone to the meeting and recognized the LTRC committee members and advisory members. Those included Burt Coffman, Jean Moe-Prince, Courtney Layfield, Suzanne Scott, and Warren Tidwell as committee members and Judge of Probate Richard Dean, County Extension Coordinator Sharon Haynes, Roland Stutzman, Judy Beckman, and Donna Brown as advisory members.
Survivors, first responders, agency representatives, and others gathered in the Rockford Event Center for the informational meeting, which lasted approximately an hour. Elected officials present for the meeting were Judge Dean, Sheriff Michael Howell, District 3 County Commissioner Brandon Davis, District 4 County Commissioner Ronnie Joiner, and Rockford Mayor Scott White.
Four guest speakers addressed attendees to speak on the tornado incident and the county coming together to help each other.
Coffman also spoke about available resources and information and answered some questions that had been submitted prior to the meeting. Representatives with two agencies assisting Coosa County also spoke to survivors at the meeting and provided some information.
Dean thanked everyone for coming and extended his appreciation to the fire departments and other responders, as well as the volunteers serving with the LTRC.
Speaking of the LTRC, Dean said, “That was one of the things we had to establish in Coosa County so that we could have access to a lot of funds or possible funds to help people out in the county. They are all volunteers.”
“I want to really express appreciation,” Dean further stated. “You know Coosa County – we may be a small county, and we don’t have a lot of funds to do things, but whenever we do have a disaster in the county the people of Coosa County come together, and they work. It doesn’t matter whether it’s the tornado that hit down here or other tornadoes or other events we’ve had in the county, people of Coosa County turn out and help their neighbors. That’s what makes Coosa County home. I can’t express how much I appreciate that.”
Dean spoke of the various volunteer fire departments who responded to provide assistance, including those from other ends of the county. He also mentioned the need the county’s departments have for more volunteers.
Coosa EMA Director Sheldon Hutcherson addressed the crowd and shared a quote from former President Ronald Reagan, “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are, ‘I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.’”
He went on to say that he has been in emergency management for almost 23 years, working as the county EMA director for the past two and a half years. He said that in some form or fashion he has worked every disaster since Hurricane Ivan in 2003.
He briefly mentioned some of the disasters he has seen and worked over the years before adding, “But until January 12 of this year, I had seen all sorts of destruction that a hurricane or a tornado can bring, but on that particular day I was no longer just an EMA director or an emergency responder. I was a victim of a tornado. Like many of my neighbors, I no longer had a place to live. It is a rough, rough time to see my house, my mother’s house and all of my neighbors that I’ve been living beside all my life, turned up on end. Then it finally clicked in my mind, now I know how it feels. Because for 20-some years I’d had sympathy for storm victims, people that had lost everything they owned, but now I felt it.”
However, Hutcherson said he still had a job to do, making sure his mother and family were alright.
“And then all I could do was cut trees with the help of my neighbors, the community [and first responders] to get to the people that needed us the most,” he said.
He added that there were two people in the room at the meeting that he wanted to thank personally, Matthew Reams and Commissioner Ronnie Joiner. He acknowledged them for taking over taking care of his house and his situation when he could not do it.
Hutcherson also expressed to everyone that if they do not have homeowners insurance he recommends getting it. He said there were many people impacted by the tornado who did not have homeowners insurance.
“If it weren’t for people in our communities gathering together, coming together, and responding to these storms and responding to this recovery effort, we would be in bad shape,” he stated. “Just ask my friends in Elmore County EMA. You’ve heard the saying that it takes a village to raise a child; well it also takes a village and community to keep going after a storm like this.”
Commissioner Ronnie Joiner, whose district the January 12 tornado impacted, also addressed attendees. He stated that he has traveled all over the world, but that he has never seen anything like the people of Coosa County.
“When something happens, before state officials can get here, we’ve already dug ourselves out,” he said. “By the time anyone got here to help us, our citizens of this county had already mobilized like nobody has ever seen, and had roads open and everything. They cleared the roads where the power companies wouldn’t have to stop and do it themselves, so we got our power on a lot quicker.”
Joiner said that he could have lived just about anywhere he wanted to, but that he has lived in Coosa County for 30 years and thinks he will die in Coosa County.
“It’s the best place I’ve ever been to live and the best people that I’ve ever seen,” Joiner said.
Donna Brown, an Equality resident who also initially served on the LTRC and now serves in an advisory role with the committee, spoke of the initial volunteer response and recovery efforts.
She said that January 12 will be a day they always remember, stating that it was “nothing but mass devastation.” She recalled the roads being impassable and said the first ones she and her husband encountered immediately after the tornado passed were members with Equality Volunteer Fire Department who were already in the area clearing trees and checking on neighbors, getting people out of their homes.
She mentioned that everyone responded and spoke of the phenomenal response and how quickly needs were met. She described it as a “response like [she] had never seen before.”
Brown recalled setting up the command post at Rehobeth Methodist Church initially and mentioned the numerous meals served to survivors and responders. While her home was not hit itself, she felt the need to help those who were affected and had suffered damage, pitching in to help those in her community.
Brown also expressed her appreciation to Sharon Coffman for taking over and leading the LTRC and continuing the efforts for recovery.
In addressing the crowd again, Coffman also mentioned that it was “amazing” to see the people responding. She read a poem she wrote, “Teddy and the Tornado,” and said that five months later some people are still not back in their homes.
She said they still “need a lot of help.” She mentioned having the informational handout for survivors and others to help provide information for assistance and resources that are available to help.
She mentioned that the LTRC had three volunteer cleanup days and said that they are currently in the middle of case management. She also stated that local pastors and church representatives were available for counseling for tornado survivors.
Coffman also reviewed and answered some questions that had been submitted ahead of the meeting. Regarding funds donated for the effort, she said that those funds are currently being held in a dedicated account with Lake Martin Area United Way until they see what the unmet needs are, and LTRC will then make decisions and proceed.
The committee is waiting for case management to be completed to help identify those unmet needs and where funding is most needed. Donations are tax deductible, and those wishing to donate can contact the Lake Martin Area United Way and state that they want to make a donation for the Coosa County Long Term Recovery Committee.
She further answered questions regarding where survivors can rent trailers, take scrap metal from the damage, debris removal, and more.
Kayla Richardson with Alabama West Florida Conference of the United Methodist Church as part of UMCOR spoke to the crowd and said that they are working with residents now as they complete case management.
She said that they are moving forward pretty well and stated that if anyone needs any recovery assistance to please contact them. She added that some residents need complete rebuilds, while others just need some materials or other assistance.
Arleace Green, public affairs specialist with the U.S. Small Business Administration’s Office of Disaster Recovery & Resilience, also took the opportunity to speak to the crowd and survivors.
“I’ve been doing this since 2017, so I have seen my share, “she said. “Every time there is a disaster I go through the process over and over again. It’s not an easy process, especially when you want to do so much, but you’re limited. The only thing I can tell you is be thankful that you’re still here to make a difference the next day. Material things can be replaced, but lives can’t. I want to do so much more, but I’m only me.”
Green went on to say that she leaves her home to come out and help people going through these difficult times and recovery efforts following natural disasters. She said she is there for emotional support, as well as any other support she can offer.
She added that SBA has numerous programs, but that they are done as loans. She said individuals can apply with a paper application even though the deadline for physical damages had passed. She mentioned that they have programs to help individuals, as well as businesses.
“More of these hurricanes and disasters are happening,” Green said. “Don’t focus – I know it’s easier said than done – don’t focus on the material. Focus on the love and that you have each other. … I do know what you’re going through. With that being said, I am so glad to see that you all are here. Some didn’t make it.”
Also during the meeting, Coffman recognized the first responders and agencies who responded within the first day or two following the tornado. She stated that the first responders were priceless right after the tornado, and each agency or group was given a certificate of appreciation.
Those recognized were Alabama Power, Baldwin County EMA, Baptist Disaster Relief, Central Alabama Electric Cooperative, County Commission, Coosa County EMA, County Highway Department, Sheriff’s Office, Elmore County EMA, Rehobeth Methodist Church, Rockford Baptist Church, Rockford Utilities Board, the Town of Rockford, and the volunteer fire departments of Equality, Goodwater, Hanover, Kellyton, Marble Valley, Ray, Richville, Rockford, Santuck, Seman, Stewartville, and Weogufka.
Coffman also acknowledged one individual, Donna Brown, that she said she could not leave that night without recognizing.
Before recognizing Brown, Coffman said, “This person was so instrumental in jumping out there and helping. They couldn’t use a chainsaw or skid steer, but they sure knew how to use a stove and make some awesome biscuits, and I’m going to present the one individual [certificate] to Donna Brown.”
For more information on the LTRC or to inquire about available resources, contact the Coosa LTRC via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.