The scope of the devastation is staggering. Houston is the fourth largest city in the nation, bigger than the state of New Jersey with a population of more than 2.3 million within city limits and 6.5 million throughout the metro area. Across the state, Hurricane Harvey affected more than 6.8 million people in 18 counties. As the days pass, the damage and death totals continue to rise. So, too, do the number of volunteers.
Neighborhoods and side streets tell a heartbreaking story. Clothes, mattresses and household furniture lay strewn across wet lawns in hopes that the sun will shine long enough to dry them. Everything that was not salvageable is piled high along the roadways, transforming shady lanes to narrow pathways, children’s toys providing the occasional jolt of color.
Outreach teams load their vans with granola bars and water and head into the dark, armed with nothing more than flashlights, clipboards, and hand sanitizer. They search the streets in the daytime, looking for signs of life such as bedrolls. At night, they return, hoping to find the owners. Sometimes they are asked to leave; other times, they are hailed as angels of mercy.
New condominiums are flanked by vacant lots festooned with faded “For Sale” signs. On some properties, a chimney or staircase tells the story of what was once there, while others hold no clues beyond the concrete slab Katrina left behind. And even these are beginning to disappear as the earth reclaims itself, burying the past beneath impenetrable layers of mud and tangled weeds.
“For those on the outside looking in, they’re seeing that the churches can’t even come together,” says Urban Hope member Dion Watts. “That’s something that has been a Goliath – a huge stumbling block. If we can come together on this, the message it will send to the rest of the world will be profound.”
The quest for storytelling remains strong in the South. “People grew up with it around them,” Mr. Prunty says. “It’s handed down; it’s a tradition you grow up in. It’s a complex part of the country with many things that have gone quite well and many that have caused thoughtful people to ask questions about themselves. When you start questioning your own backyard, you’re more apt to produce good literature.”
Selma is a reflection, both good and bad, of life in Alabama’s rural Black Belt, where poverty remains entrenched. Selma has both been lifted by and bears the burden of its history. As one of the main cities in this agricultural area, many expect it to forge a renaissance and lead some of the South’s poorest counties back to prosperity while providing a glimmer of hope to an increasingly racially polarized nation.