Disaster Relief Volunteers Take on Tornadoes in Alabama and Georgia

Julie H. Case

Greyshirts hit the ground in Griffin, GA, and Selma, AL, in response to January’s devastating early-season twisters.

When a line of severe weather swept through the South on January 12, it brought yet another reign of devastation with it. The storms produced multiple tornadoes through the region, including nine in central Alabama and 12 in Georgia. 

January 12 tornado paths in AL and GA courtesy NOAA. EF4 tornadoes are in red; EF2s in yellow; EF1s in green.

The January tornadoes added insult to injury: The entire region is still faced with damage from Hurricane Zeta in the fall of 2020. And, in March of 2021, supercell thunderstorms that formed in the Gulf Coast turned deadly, spinning up 25 tornadoes in Alabama, including an EF2 tornado—1,000 yards at its widest point—that touched down in historic Selma and produced damage for more than 5 miles.

To help serve the survivors of the latest devastating storms, nonprofit Team Rubicon has launched disaster relief operations in both Griffin, GA, and Selma, AL. 

Greyshirts Take on Griffin Damage

A dozen tornadoes—ranging from EF1 to EF3—caused significant damage in Georgia, starting at the Alabama state line and stretching northeast through LaGrange and beyond Griffin for roughly 80 miles.

A home under tornado debris in Griffin, GA. Photo by Austin Handle

“Today, there are still over 60% of folks in LaGrange and Griffin without electricity,” said Movement Organizing Fellow at Project South, Evelyn Zachery. That lack of infrastructure makes it hard for these tornado survivors to access financial help and resources or to navigate an already difficult FEMA process. “Over 100 families are living without their personal properties in the Langton and Griffin area alone.”

In response, Team Rubicon volunteers—or Greyshirts—hit the ground in Griffin on January 17 to conduct sawyer work, remove downed trees and other debris, tarp roofs, and muck out homes damaged or flooded in the tornadoes. 

Already, the Greyshirts have completed more than 30 work orders for residents of the area, with the plan to complete dozens more by the time the operation wraps at the end of the month. 

Volunteers Return to Selma for Third Time in Two Years

Four counties—Green, Sumpter, Hale, and Dallas counties—in Alabama were hit especially hard by the January 12 tornadoes, resulting in significant damage to some 3,000 structures and displacing more than 6,000 people, according to Black Belt Community Foundation President Felecia Lucky.

A Greyshirt in Selma inspects a roof and surrounding damage from the Jan. 12 tornado. Photo by Jeremy Hinen.

“We’ve seen homes that have been completely flattened,” said Lucky, “we’re seeing many of the communities in Selma, and even in some of the rural communities, just completely gone.”

At least three devastating tornadoes hit the city of Selma, according to the National Weather Service, with almost 1,000 residents displaced and more than 500 structures damaged or destroyed in surrounding Dallas County. 

In response, Team Rubicon began deploying the first of more than 130 Greyshirts to the historic city on January 16. 

“Selma is a city with a rich history of Civil Rights and a very proud community; it’s a community that has been trying to recover from past storms even before the latest tornado hit on January 12th,” said Team Rubicon Incident Commander in Selma, Jarrett Brown. Even before this tornado, residents had been trying to rebuild, even with limited resources, and make the best homes they could. Then, the tornado struck, and all that work and everything in its path, wreaking complete destruction through neighborhoods that were already struggling and where residents now have no place to live. 

“Through the heart of the town, you could turn on any corner and see this destruction— from missing roofs to homes split in two by large trees to leveled homes that look like a bomb went off. And, every road was blocked by debris and power poles which made it very difficult to maneuver.”

A Greyshirt meets with a homeowner while mucking a home in Selma. Photo by Jeremy Hinen.

While the operation is now two weeks out from the tornado, there is still extensive work to complete, according to Brown. Greyshirts have worked on more than 50 homes and completed more than 70 work orders. And still, Selma residents are walking in and calling in daily with requests for assistance. “Hundreds of families are still in desperate need,” said Brown. “We will continue to conduct muck outs, roof tarping, heavy equipment, and sawyer operations until our time here ends in mid-February.”

At 10 days in, Greyshirts had already completed work on nearly 70 homes, though much remains to be done. Hundreds of local residents remain in need of everything from roof tarping and muck outs to assistance clearing downed trees blocking access to their homes.

It’s Team Rubicon’s third operation in the historic city in less than two years. In March of 2021, more than 40 Greyshirts deployed over the course of two weeks in response to the devastating tornadoes. And in early 2022, Team Rubicon launched its Selma rebuild program. To date, the veteran-led nonprofit has completed its rebuild of nine homes, with work expected to begin on another three this year.

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