SELMA, Ala. – As Pearlie Miller stood outside her home in Selma, Alabama on Friday morning, she was not assessing the damage caused by the destructive tornado that ripped through the town the day before.
An adjuster had already done this for her – noting that the entire left side of her home had been blown away and the wrought iron posts on her porch barely supported the roof. After being hit directly by the tornado, the building would not be salvageable. She had to grab what she could and find another place to stay.
The cold wind whipped around her, and as she looked at the house she had lived in with her sisters, she thought not of what had been lost. She thought of her gratitude for her safety and that of her neighbours.
“It’s just God’s grace,” Miller said. “But Selma is alive.”
The city is famous for its historic sites: Pettus Bridge, where the march from Selma to Montgomery is commemorated; Brown Chapel AME Church, where the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference worked with local activists during the Selma Movement; and the National Voting Rights Museum and Institute, founded in 1991 and opened near the bridge.
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The devastation of Selma stretches for miles diagonally across the historic town. Several people were injured and at least one was serious enough to require transport to a hospital in Birmingham, Alabama. Hundreds of homes and businesses have their front yard windows and roofs smashed. Fallen trees and broken power lines hang above the streets. At one point, 19,000 people in the area were without power.
Despite all the damage, Selma reported no casualties. At least nine deaths have been reported across the rest of the state.
“The tornado came and divided our city. It was devastating,” Mayor James Perkins said at a news conference on Friday.
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Since the storm, the historic city has captured national attention. The American Red Cross set up a shelter at the local high school, members of the US Congress offered to help, and donations of cleanup time and effort poured in.
The tornado spared some major historic sites associated with King, such as the Brown Chapel AME Church, which was the starting point for the marches from Selma to Montgomery for the right to vote. But it left exterior damage on historic homes like Sturdivant Hall and Grace Hall.
“I believe the historic nature of Selma will put the eyes of the world on our disaster,” U.S. Representative Terri Sewell told the Montgomery Advertiser. “Through the Selma name, it helped us galvanize resources. I just want to make sure they’re channeled the right way.
The downtown Selma neighborhood is where the late Amelia Boynton Robinson, Selma’s suffrage strategist and matriarch of the civil rights movement, convinced King to get involved in the movement, hoping he would would help nationalize the fight for the right to vote. This is where the late Georgia Congressman and suffrage icon John Lewis was beaten nearly to death by state troopers as he crossed the Pettus Bridge on March 7, 1965.
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Some residents, however, wonder why their town’s story is used to get help — why people who lost their homes aren’t enough reason for others to care.
“Selma has a thriving history, but we’re in the present,” Miller said. “Yes, things can be lost, but we have archives where this history is preserved. Now we need to focus on our community, rebuild and make sure everyone is okay. The historical part should just take a back seat.
Standing outside her house on Friday morning, Miller turned to look at the houses of her neighbors across the street. One had a tree sitting on it.
The woman who lived there, she said, was entirely dependent on the care of others. When the tree fell, crushing her house, the woman could not get out. Miller’s sisters were able to call for help and their neighbor was pulled from the house unharmed.
“At least everyone here is safe,” Miller said. “We’re just going to start from scratch.”
Calvin Marshall, a history teacher at RB Hudson Middle School, was also on Miller Street Friday morning. Along with a group of his brothers from the Omega Psi Phi fraternity, he was walking around the neighborhood to help clean up the masses of debris.
“We’ve seen a lot of storms, but this is the worst it’s ever been,” he said. “A lot of neighborhoods will be really turned upside down here for years to come.”
Marshall plans to volunteer for the cleanup for as many days or weeks as his community needs him.
As for Selma’s story, he said it is everywhere.
“Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, so many important people were in that community. They lived with these people,” he said. “Everything is a landmark in Selma, and if that helps, great.”
Contributor: Associated Press