Thursday, May 5, 2011

In the news: Rural communities and natural disaster

Three stories in the New York Times over the past few days have depicted the relationship between small-town life and natural disaster, just as this story (about which I blogged here) did a few days ago.

First, one focus of this story in yesterday's paper was the population loss associated with an extreme drought in Cimarron County, Oklahoma, population 2,652. The headline is "Survivor of Dust Bowl Now Weathers a Fiercer Drought," and the dateline is Boise City, population 1,295 (according to the 2005-2009 Census Bureau estimates). Here's an excerpt from the story that describes the place, which has gone 222 consecutive days without more than a quarter inch of rain:

But this drought is a reminder of just how parched and unyielding life can be along this wind-raked frontier, fittingly called No Man’s Land, and it is not clear how many more ups and downs Boise City can take.

“The community is drying up,” Mark Axtell, the area’s only funeral director, said on a walk through the cemetery, where brown tufts of buffalo grass crunched underfoot.

In the last decade, Boise City lost almost 16 percent of its population, according to the 2010 census. Just 1,312 people live here now — far fewer than the 3,000 who bought the first lots in 1908, only to discover that they had been hoodwinked. The land was inhospitable, and promises of railroads, water and trees (Boise is from the French “le bois,” meaning trees) were a fraud.

Watch a NYT video about Boise City here; it is a powerful story of attachment to place. Cimarron County is in the far western Oklahoma, panhandle stretching even farther west than the state of Nebraska, to border New Mexico and Colorado.

The other two stories are out of Alabama, here and here, and they report on the aftermath of last week's tornadoes. The first, is "Devastated Alabama Town Struggles to Account for its Missing," with a dateline Hackleburg, Alabama, population 1,644, and the second is "Tornado Leaves Couple with Nothing, but Not for Long," dateline, Henagar, Alabama, population 2,567

The first story illustrates the lack of anonymity in rural communities with this lede:
Over the last week, this close-knit little town has had to grapple with a most unfamiliar feeling: not knowing where everyone is.

When the tornadoes came through last Wednesday, ripping over the hills at speeds of up to 200 miles an hour, it left a town alien to itself. The bodies of strangers showed up in backyard ponds, survivors found themselves lying in open fields away from homes that were no longer there and, at night, there was no light, not as much as a streetlamp, to gather around and take stock.

Accounting for everyone, even here, in a town of 1,576, has proved a daunting task.

The second illustrates the sense of community in rural places with this lede:
There’s the kindness of strangers, and then there’s what is happening to Regina and Jerry Wayne Walker.

They used to rent a mobile home for $150 a month on a dirt road in this slice of rural northeastern Alabama.

Then, last Wednesday, winds from a tornado so strong it killed 33 people in the county pushed their mobile home across the road like it was a toy.

They woke up under a pile of rubble.

* * *

They were broke, bruised and stuck in a part of the country so remote that the Red Cross did not show up for three days.

* * *

Someone, no one knows who exactly, brought a tent.

Now the couple are living in a donated recreational vehicle, albeit one without a motor. This is a heartwarming story of the community taking care of a very downtrodden couple who cannot even read or write. And here is yet another life-affirming post-tornado story, this one with the dateline Yazoo City, Mississippi, population 11,380, about recovery from a spring, 2010 tornado.

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