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In hurricane-ravaged Georgia, Black Voters Matter’s organizing tour turns into a relief effort

Black Voters Matter visited five towns hit by Hurricane Michael in southwest Georgia.

Cliff Albright talks to residents of Clay County, Georgia. Many of them lost power for days after Hurricane Michael. CREDIT: Kira Lerner
Cliff Albright talks to residents of Clay County, Georgia. Many of them lost power for days after Hurricane Michael. CREDIT: Kira Lerner

DONALSONVILLE, GEORGIA – As Black Voters Matter’s bus drove south through Georgia, cotton fields quickly turned into downed trees and destroyed homes. Many residents of rural southwest Georgia are still struggling after Hurricane Michael left them without electricity, running water, or government aid.

Late Tuesday morning, the bus pulled up to a fellowship hall in rural Donalsonville beside a severely damaged church. Black Voters Matter organizers immediately began an assembly line, unloading cases of water and lining them up inside the building. Cecelia White, a local Democratic leader, showered them with praise and said Black Voters Matter was the first group to bring aid to rural Donalsonville.

“We had one of the worst hurricanes take out a rural city that already had limited resources, so what you’re having is a lot of devastation,” she said. “People have no power and water, and it’s been like that since Wednesday. So what you’re doing helps tremendously… This is going to be very important, and I’m so thankful.”

Donalsonville, Georgia, where the only death from Hurricane Michael occurred in Georgia, is over 61 percent black. On Tuesday, Black Voters Matter stopped in five different counties with large African American populations that are still suffering after the October 10 hurricane.

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The stops were part of the group’s “The South is Rising” bus tour, a road trip in which organizers had been doing voter education and outreach and building black political power in seven southern states. When the storm hit, organizers said they decided to shift their focus for a portion of the Georgia leg and focus on relief work.

“While voting is always at the center of our work, sometimes you have to pause and just make sure folks have basic needs met,” Wanda Mosley, Black Voters Matter’s Georgia director, told ThinkProgress from the group’s bus as it drove south.

During the peak of the storm, Donalsonville experienced 115 mile per hour winds, and Seminole County’s Emergency Management Administration director told local reporters that Donalsonville looked like a “war zone.” In the days since, the National Guard has arrived in the city of Donalsonville, but people in the rural parts of the county said they are still suffering because they can’t get to the city and they also lost their power and water supply.

“We know that particularly rural black communities get left out,” Black Voters Matter co-founder LaTosha Brown said about relief work.

On Tuesday morning, Brown and co-founder Cliff Albright also presented the fellowship next to the St. John AME Church with a generator, which local leaders said they could use to power up their kitchen and feed roughly 400 people.

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With a critical election that will determine Georgia’s next governor just three weeks away, Brown and Albright are largely focused on getting out the vote. On Monday, their bus stopped at a Stacey Abrams campaign event and distributed information about early voting. But they said when they learned portions of the state were still suffering, they put election work on hold.

Disaster relief is not new to Brown and Albright. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the two organizers borrowed a bus and drove across Mississippi distributing aid. Albright said that work taught him the need to address marginalized black communities after disasters. “We saw there were communities in the Gulf Coast that weren’t getting resources,” he said.

Thirteen years later, storms are still disproportionately impacting rural people of color. “Disaster relief is not exempt from racism,” he said. “Disaster relief is filled with issues of race and inequity.”

In Albany, Georgia — their last stop of the day — a local leader again thanked them for the help, explaining that Albany is divided into white and black sections. Only the white side has received aid.

Black Voter Matter distributes water in Donalsonville, Georgia. CREDIT: Kira Lerner
Black Voter Matter distributes water in Donalsonville, Georgia. CREDIT: Kira Lerner

Black Voters Matter’s bus arrived in rural Georgia Tuesday with 90 cases of bottled water, five generators, charcoal, chainsaws, matches, tarps, and cleaning supplies. In Blakely, Georgia, organizers unloaded water, charcoal, and cleaning supplies to be handed out at the Church Street Church of Christ, which was serving as a distribution center. James Scurlark, the minister of the church, said he has been working at the church 11 years and this is the worst storm he’s seen. Nevertheless, all of the aid they’ve received has been from private organizations, he said.

Tonya Hicks, a 48-year-old former teacher in Blakely, said her house is seriously damaged. She and her husband have been sleeping in their truck because her bedroom is unbearably hot.

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When asked how long it took to get aid, she laughed. “Today?” she said. “We got ice and MREs, but we have a generator so we’re blessed because we’re still without power since Wednesday night.”

“The city and the government — our local government and the big government — I don’t think they’re doing enough because they know we’re struggling,” she added. “We’ve never been through anything like this.”

Political impact 

Many people across rural Georgia told ThinkProgress that they can’t think about voting right now when they’re still struggling to make sure their basic needs are met.

On Monday, Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal (R) made an effort to respond to voters’ concerns, issuing an executive order extending the voter registration deadline through Tuesday night in four counties affected by the storm – Clay, Grady, Randolph, and Turner. But Albright said he worried that voters, especially those without electricity or internet service, won’t get that information.

“What other accommodations are going to be made?” he asked, questioning whether voters might run into problems when they present IDs showing incorrect addresses. “How the county or state responds to people who are now displaced, that needs to be taken into account. What turnout will be depends on those policy responses.”

It’s still unclear how the storm could affect election turnout. While fewer people may early vote, Albright said they might be even more excited to cast ballots by Election Day.

“People will be motivated by this disaster because they’ll be more clear about the role policymakers have in times of disaster,” Albright said.

In Blakely, Hicks said she always votes, and the storm has made her want to work with campaigns to help get other people to the polls. “That’s my goal for now on – to put proper candidates in office who will respond to things like this,” she said. “Seeing how our officials here in local government and national are handling our small town, I’m not happy.”

Albright said Black Voters Matter will urge voters to think the same way, explaining that the hurricane should inspire people to vote at every level.

“Disasters like this show us that leadership matters,” he said. “It’s not just president. It’s the local level, it’s county commissioners, it’s county administrators. Those are the people that make some of these decisions, like which of these counties are going to get their roads cleared first or which of these counties are going to get power first. It’s some of these positions that people don’t even think about. These county level administrators can determine life and death in times of an emergency.”

Voters receive aid in Albany, Georgia. CREDIT: Kira Lerner
Voters receive aid in Albany, Georgia. CREDIT: Kira Lerner

President Trump on Monday visited Warner Robins, Georgia, an area also hit by the storm, to survey damage. Neither Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams nor GOP candidate Brian Kemp joined him, but Abrams’ campaign said she’ll be visiting hard hit areas later this week and said she will change the way the state handles disaster relief if elected governor.

“I’m running for governor because I believe in making sure that we have a leader who sees these communities not only in the moment of devastation and the immediate aftermath, but a year out when folks have walked away and supplies have dwindled,” she said during a campaign stop.

Kemp, who traveled to southwest Georgia Saturday and then again Monday, applauded recovery efforts on the ground.

“The response on the ground, while there is much to do, has been unbelievable from the federal, state and friends and neighbors who are helping men and women indeed,” Kemp said Monday at a distribution center, according to the Atlanta Journal Constitution. “It makes you proud to be in Georgia.”

Albright said that though it’s focused on election turnout now, Black Voters Matter won’t leave after the November 6 midterm. The organization will continue helping those on the ground and will build infrastructure for black political power in rural parts of the South.

Beyond Florida  

When Hurricane Michael struck rural southern Georgia on October 10, 72-year-old Clarice Blake hid in a secure room in her home, nervous as howling winds cracked trees outside her window. When she emerged after the storm passed, she found three trees had punctured her roof and 11 more down in her yard.

(PHOTO CREDIT: Kira Lerner)
(PHOTO CREDIT: Kira Lerner)

Blake, a native of the U.S. Virgin Islands who moved to Georgia in 2013, said Hurricane Michael felt surreal. “I left the Virgin Islands, which we call Hurricane Alley, and came here,” she said. “I keep saying, this place is so quiet. Nothing happens here.” Most of her city, Donalsonville, still doesn’t have power or running water. Across Donalsonville, trees and road signs are down, and scattered homes are destroyed.

“Thank God I’m not worse off, but it’s bad,” Blake told ThinkProgress Tuesday from the Donalsonville fellowship hall. She said her daughter, who lives in Tallahassee, also has a tree through her home, but more people know about the damage in Florida because the media and lawmakers have focused attention there.

President Trump issued a federal emergency declaration for counties in middle and southwest Georgia on Monday, five days after the storm. The decision makes federal funding available for people in six counties in Georgia and many others through state and local government agencies. Meanwhile, the president issued an emergency declaration in Florida on October 9, the day before the storm.

Brown said without the declaration, people in Georgia can’t apply for FEMA vouchers. She called the delay “an enormous burden on poor rural folks that don’t have resources.”

Hicks, who said she and her neighbors did not adequately prepare for the storm, said the focus on Florida bothers her.

“The news reports are mostly focused on Panama City and Mexico Beach,” she said. “We just got on the list to get FEMA yesterday. We were kind of pushed to the back.”

In Blakely, Scurlark said that Georgians suffer when the government focused on Florida.

“Georgia is sort of like, whenever they get around to it, but in the mean time we suffer until they bring relief,” he said. “We’re having to depend on private agencies.”

Black Voters Matter distributes water in Albany, Georgia. CREDIT: Kira Lerner
Black Voters Matter distributes water in Albany, Georgia. CREDIT: Kira Lerner

‘There’s a political storm as well’

Even before the hurricane, black voters in rural Georgia were facing other barriers to the polls. Kemp, who is also the state’s election chief, has been sued over his effort to put 53,000 voter registrations on hold using an “exact match” system which flags any applications that have even the smallest discrepancy, like a missing hyphen, from the information the state has on file. The AP reported last week that 70 percent of those registrations belong to African American voters.

On Monday, Black Voters Matter was stopped from taking roughly 40 senior citizens to the polls. The senior center in Jefferson County said they were notified by county officials that the bus could not transport the voters, so the elderly people got off the bus. As they walked off, many said they are even more fired up to cast ballots, but Black Voters Matter organizers on the bus said they were witnessing live voter suppression.

“There’s a physical storm that happened but there’s also a political storm as well,” Brown said.

In Albany, one of Black Voters Matter’s final stops in storm-ravaged Georgia Tuesday, the group distributed ten cases of water to roughly 50 people waiting to receive aid. Mosley stood in front of the crowd and said while the contribution was small, Black Voters Matter will also be providing community partners with financial aid.

“Normally we have a lot of talk about voting, but today we’re just here to bring hope and love,” she said. “When people’s basic needs are met, everything else will fall into place.”