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Tornado recovery continues as Selma commemorates ‘Bloody Sunday’

President Biden will speak at the annual Bridge Crossing Jubilee on Sunday, in the shadow of a storm-battered city with an affordable housing crisis.

SELMA, Ala. (CN) — Barbara Walter was at her home of four years, a brick ranch style at 1505 Vine St., peeking out of her living room window, watching the wind blow leaves around as a storm approached on the afternoon of Thursday, Jan. 12. Her husband David died in December 2021 and Barbara was thinking about him as Bella, her full-blooded German Shepherd, expressed unease.

“She was whining and pacing … like she knew something bad was about to happen,” Walter recalled in an interview last week.

As the wind increased, a gust toppled a large pecan tree on the intersection of Minter Avenue. 

“I thought I would go outside and have a look, but as soon as I opened the door, I was thrown back inside the den,” Walter said. “Bella was screaming so I grabbed her and we huddled next to the couch, praying and crying.”

The dog was being so vocal, Walter joked that she was leading the prayer. Debris that had been swirling outside was now inside her house and within moments Walter heard another crash. This time, a neighbor’s pecan tree landed on her roof.

“I don’t have any large trees in my yard so I thought we were safe,” she reckoned. “Then that one came down and put holes in the kitchen and the den … but it also probably kept the roof from flying off.”

Across Vine Street, a neighbor she only knows as Mr. Troy was not as fortunate. His roof was completely torn off by the EF-2 tornado that swept through Selma, damaging some 6,000 properties across Dallas County.

Houses and apartments were destroyed throughout Walter’s neighborhood, which is still recovering as the community prepares for the annual Selma Bridge Crossing Jubilee, a commemoration of the 58th anniversary of "Bloody Sunday," when mostly Black voting rights activists were beaten by state law enforcement agents as they began a march to Montgomery across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. 

A house on Vine Street in Selma, Ala., is missing its roof and a large pine tree after the Jan. 12, 2023, tornado. (Gabriel Tynes/Courthouse News)

Last week, the White House announced President Joe Biden would attend the bridge crossing ceremony on Sunday. It won’t be his first official visit to town — he attended the 2013 event as vice president and the 2020 ceremonies as a presidential candidate — but the city is different this time, with arguably more suffering than Bloody Sunday.

“Selma hasn’t changed much since 1965. It’s always going to have poor people and rich people,” said Louretta Wimberly, a 90-year-old native and retired teacher who recalls the Jim Crow era vividly, even though she was out of state for Bloody Sunday. “It’s always going to have Black communities and white communities. The thing is people just need to learn to live together and work together."

Wimberly was sitting in a community center Feb. 23 where her former student, Democratic Congresswoman Terri Sewell, had organized a storm recovery resource fair. Her own home was not affected, but Wimberly was seeking assistance for her church, the First Baptist Church of Selma, which lost windows and other architectural features in the storm. 

“I think everyone is doing their best to clean up and rebuild, but it will be a shame if they don’t build it better than it was, if it just goes back to what it was before the tornado,” Wimberly said, noting most of the city’s streets, storm water and sewer systems are worn, dysfunctional or substandard. 

Dallas County is nearly 70% Black, with a median household income of just $23,370 in 2020, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, well below the national average of $67,521. The unemployment rate of 5.3% in December 2022 was three points above the state unemployment rate and two points above the national unemployment rate. 


As Wimberly noted, many Black residents of Selma don’t even own the properties they live in. More likely, their homes are rented from white landlords. 

“My biggest concern is that people are being taken advantage of no matter what their situation is,” she said. “But even before the storm, we had a lot of absentee landlords who just wanted to collect a check and didn’t maintain their properties. Now I wonder if they are even going to rebuild and if they don’t, where will everyone go?”

The Selma Housing Authority was one of the organizations participating in the resource fair, alongside state and federal agencies including the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Small Business Administration, U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Housing Service, Black Belt Community Foundation and Legal Services Alabama, which offers pro-bono legal services in civil court to low-income individuals. 

Chief Operating Officer Julius Howard said at least 32 public housing units were damaged or destroyed in the Jan. 12 tornado, displacing more than 100 residents of the Selma Housing Authority.

“We assist 581 families with low-rent housing and we have 1,098 Section 8 vouchers, of which nearly 800 are currently filled,” he said. “Most of the families who were uprooted in the storm have already been permanently or temporarily relocated, but what we’re finding out now is there is a great need for new affordable housing in Selma and around Dallas County.” 

Howard said the organization is hustling to recruit new landlords, offering more favorable payments than ever before and certain flexibilities. 

“The well of affordable housing was already shallow, but now it’s about dried up,” Howard said. 

Congresswoman Sewell herself was at the fair, touting recent progress in the cleanup process since the federal government announced Feb. 9 it would pay for 100% of the cost. But she also warned the recovery would be a “long process.”

“It is overwhelming, this is definitely going to be a marathon and not a sprint, but help is here and will stay here until we don’t need help anymore,” she said. “This is really hard. Not only has it affected my district, but the people impacted are the people I grew up with, my classmates, my church members, my former teachers.” 

Sewell pledged to use “every tool in the federal toolkit” toward the recovery effort, “knowing we will get them the assistance they need.” 

Residents of Selma, Ala., attend a resource fair to gain the assistance of FEMA and other state and federal agencies after a Jan. 12, 2023, tornado damaged or destroyed several thousand properties in Dallas County. (Gabriel Tynes/Courthouse News)

FEMA spokesperson Larissa Hale said tornado victims are eligible for grants of up to $41,000 for housing assistance and other needs. 

“We help people get livable. We can’t take you to 100%, but we want to make sure your housing is functional, safe and sanitary,” she explained. “They tell us what they need and we do our best to provide it. We are here as long as the state needs us and as long as there is need.”

No one was killed in the Jan. 12 tornado in Selma, but up the road in Autauga County, six Alabamians lost their lives. CoreLogic estimated some 16,000 homes were damaged or destroyed by the storm in Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia, causing as much as $4.5 billion in damages. 

Back on Vine Street, Walter said she was paying for everything out of pocket. Coincidentally, her insurer dropped her policy last November after a lapse in the escrow account and her property was uninsured during the storm. She paid $700 to have the pecan tree cut down and removed and was looking for estimates to repair the roof. 

“I didn’t ever think it would happen to me but it sure did,” she said. “I’ll get over it but I worry about everyone else and those who lost everything.”

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