PLEASANT GROVE, Ala (Reuters) - Dust chokes the air as volunteers sawed apart 200-year-old oaks that fell like toothpicks when storms ripped through the working-class neighborhood of Pleasant Grove, Alabama, last month.
At the home of an older woman who lacked insurance, two teenage helpers lift a heavy log with their father looking on.
“Many hands make light work, that is what the Bible tells us,” said Rick Hagans, 52, who traveled from Auburn with his sons to help with the cleanup.
Communities faced with such disasters often wait for federal officials to organize the relief effort, said John James, former director of the Alabama Emergency Management Director.
Not Alabama. Since a deadly outbreak of at least 53 tornadoes killed 238 people in the state in late April, residents have been sawing and hauling logs, placing tarps on roofs and helping neighbors pack what is left of their belongings with quiet determination.
“By the time FEMA gets here, all they will have to do is write a few checks,” said James, who coordinated the recovery in North Alabama and is now looking to help Tuscaloosa.
Lending a helping hand is nothing new in Alabama, but part of a community tradition rooted in the state’s long history.
Alabama was first populated by Native Americans, Celts and African-American slaves, all groups with tribal origins, said John Mayfield, a history professor at Samford University in Birmingham.
The early settlers turned out to help one another build and bring in the crops, he said.
“It was barn-raisings, house-raisings and harvest sharing. They turned to each other,” said Mayfield.
Alabama residents have also long been distrustful of government of any stripe, Mayfield said. The first Confederate government was sworn in there, and 1960s segregationists resisted federal interference.
Even now, the numbers of people asking for government help are low compared to the size of the disaster, said Laurie Ashcom, spokeswoman for the state Emergency Management Agency.
FEMA has stepped up its efforts to encourage people to register for assistance, and nearly 58,000 have signed up so far. Yet fewer than 300 people remain in shelters, a testament to private citizens helping the displaced, said U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan.
As he toured tornado-gouged Pratt City this week, Donovan complimented Alabamians on their neighborliness.
“Thousands of families are staying with relatives, friends, church members and perfect strangers,” Donovan told reporters.
Other observers are similarly impressed.
“I have been amazed at the resilience of Alabamians as I watch them during this disaster,” said Martha Crowthen, a psychology professor at the University of Alabama.
She attributes the sense of community and responsibility toward others to residents’ spirituality and the self-reliance that comes from a rural background, where “there may not be someone else to come along and do it for you.”
Since the tornadoes hit, more than 10,000 volunteers have signed up at the Tuscaloosa Volunteer Reception Center, according to organizers.
Nearly 12,000 people have joined the ranks of Hands On Birmingham, one of many volunteer organizations assisting storm victims, said executive director Tree Gentle Davidson. Volunteers include people walking in off the street, CEOs and people of every ethnicity, she said.
“People are calling us saying, ‘I am ready to get dirty, what can I do to help?'” Davidson said.
Stories of people pitching in continue to play out across the state. In Phil Campbell, retiree Ron Beberniss partnered with Alfredo Albarado and Carlos Carabez to clear three properties of trees and rubble within a couple of hours.
Last Sunday, Colorado transplant Becky Nix, 43, chose to spend Mother’s Day with her family helping another mother rake a debris-strewn yard in Pleasant Grove.
“In Alabama, people are very compassionate and take care of each other,” Nix said.
Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Tim Gaynor