Ripped beds lying dormant on the streets, roofs torn off of houses and power lines streaking across yards and slithering between fallen trees.
This was the scene when I pulled up to the east side of Greensboro Sunday night, hours after an EF 2 tornado with 135 mph winds left a 33.6 mile long and almost a quarter of a mile wide path of destruction.
When I arrived, no one was there. No first responders, no fire trucks, only silence: the sound of the warm wind through leaves and the menacing clouds up above. In fact, I was not even supposed to be there. Not because it was against the law but because I had happened upon it all by accident. I was in Winston-Salem when the storm came and went through the Triad. I got alarms, like many people did, but I did not even know the true damage it had left behind.
For the first 24 hours following the tornado, there was very little response. A Crisis Response group was created on Facebook on which people could offer or request help and post videos and photos. One request for help said, “My best friend and his family need shelter… he is a war veteran with bad PTSD…he doesn’t want to leave his house.” Another read, “It’s so many of us.” At the scene, there were policemen and women surrounding the area, blocking some roads with cones where the damage was heavy while some roads were blocked naturally by trees ripped from their roots.
Within 36 to 48 hours, the Glenwood Recreation Center opened in coalition with the Red Cross, giving shelter to anyone that needed it. Upon notice, people began to pour in with supplies to help those in need. Rooms upon rooms were filled with diapers, canned food, jackets and clothes. Following suit, the Windsor Recreation Center opened as Red Cross began to expand their operations.
The reason behind the move was because of space. The Windsor Recreation Center Red Cross Shelter Manager Sydney Rutledge said, “This area is much bigger, and we have more showers…the other one had two showers while this one has four.” Rutledge has seen people from all across the spectrum of suffering. “I’ve seen people who have lost everything…some of them have no house, they’ve lost all their clothes, all their clothes.”
I had noted earlier that within 24 hours, the response was limited. Once a response did come, it was in a large wave. The support from the community was noticeable, and in an outpouring of human kindness, volunteers stepped up and organizations coalesced. “I know Goodwill has been picking them [tornado victims] up…and letting them go shop for free over there,” said Rutledge.
As for the future, it is foggy at best. There are many people who only need their power to come back on in order to go back to their respective homes. Some, however, are in a place that leaves them in need of assistance far longer than they anticipated. One would think that there would be no difference in assisting those who have been struck by the tornado on the east side of Greensboro in comparison to if the tornado had gone through the west side, but the racial divide in Greensboro is still very much present. The tornado only exasperated problems that were crawling along the walls of the homes in the east.
When I went to the Windsor Recreation Center to interview people who had experienced the tornado first hand, I was rightly stopped. They explained to me that stepping into the main area of the disaster relief center was like stepping into their living room. So instead, I went to ground zero of the tornado, to the place I had first scoured on Sunday. The bed I had first seen was gone and some trees were off to the side, but it was all still surprisingly chaotic.
I parked and got out, watching a group of people removing branches from the road when a man, who decided to remain anonymous, approached me. He looked a bit rugged but confident as he called out to me. He asked if I was there to help. When I told him I was a reporter, he opened up to me about the situation and raised some good points. “We’re a black neighborhood…we’ve always been struggling, and we’ve always been a rebellious part of the city.” He was right. Greensboro is coined as being the origin of the civil rights movement, but the east side has continued to be majority black.
In an interview with CNN in 2011, NAACP’s Hightower said “There are things missing in east Greensboro that need to be going on here…we have to travel to the west side to go to the better stores, the better shops.”
In the same article, Duke University professor William Chafe, author of “Civilities and Civil Rights: Greensboro, North Carolina, and the Black Struggle for Freedom” said, “Greensboro has continued to portray itself as moderate and progressive…but the realities of it are that it has not changed that much because the underlying issues of seriously listening to black concerns have not really infiltrated the political process.”
Today, some people enter the shelter, while others go back in from shopping at Goodwill. In the parking lot, a family gets out of the car as each member carries bags filled with supplies. We as a community seem to continue to support each other, but we must recognize the divide and put forth not just effort today, but for all the years to come for a community that has been ravaged by both a natural storm and the storm of history.