Black ribbons fluttered in the breeze as a homemade pinwheel bearing 29 names turned slowly, lending a splash of color to an otherwise overcast day in southern West Virginia. Here, residents are still coming to grips with the state’s worst mining disaster in more than two decades. Part of that process continued Sunday, when President Obama spoke at a eulogy for the 29 coal miners who died in the accident.
For Tennessee firefighter Chris Copeland, responding to disasters is a way of life, but three days before Christmas, his world was shaken to its foundation when the rescuer found himself in a new role — survivor. Just after midnight Dec. 22, while Copeland lay sleeping, an earthen dike gave way on the north side of Tennessee Valley Authority’s Kingston Fossil Plant in Kingston, Tenn. Within seconds, 5.4 million cubic yards of fly ash — a by-product of coal combustion — oozed into the Emory River, gaining speed until the glossy, debris-laden sludge roared through the Swan Pond area, leaving three homes destroyed and 42 damaged. Copeland says the sound was deafening; he thought it was a tornado.
Kelly Taylor-Forgar, emergency services director of the Central Louisiana chapter of the Red Cross hopes she never again experiences what she went through Monday night. Red Cross volunteers reported 42 families affected and four homes destroyed in La Salle and Rapides parishes. Meanwhile, their colleagues found themselves in need of assistance as well when high winds slammed trees into their office and tore away part of the roof. Taylor-Forgar, who was in the building at the time, said even though she grew up in Texas and spends her days assisting families touched by natural disasters, it was frightening to witness a storm in progress.
Lorraine Finch stares nervously at the blue tarpaulin covering her 85-year-old mother’s roof. It’s not raining today in southeastern Florida, but as winter sets in, nighttime temperatures are dropping into the low 20s, and the worn plastic does little to shield the home from the elements. It took less than a week in August for Tropical Storm Fay to take 36 lives and leave $180 million damage throughout the state, but recovery is moving far more slowly, frustrating both residents and the organizations trying to help.
One by one, the names were called, amid a backdrop of noise and confusion Monday afternoon in the Sylmar High School gymnasium, where survivors sought shelter following four weekend wildfires, which blackened more than 42,000 acres in southwestern California. It was a seemingly endless roster, tinged with both hope and despair as families waited to learn which van would take them on a 10-minute tour of Oakridge Mobile Home Park in Los Angeles County — the white vans, for residents whose homes were left standing; or the black vans, for those who had lost everything. The black vans stayed busy.
The rental trailer wasn’t in great condition before the muddy rivers spilled their banks in Columbus, Ind., but it provided a home for the family of five. The parents worked in the fields and their baby played happily on the kitchen floor in the evenings, surrounded by the chatter of the two elder siblings doing homework and the smells of supper being prepared. Then summer came, and with it came flooding rains — 11 inches within seven hours. Levees broke. Dams failed. Much of the Midwest was left underwater, with places in Indiana seeing the worst flooding the state had experienced in more than a century.