HIGDON, Ala. — For residents on County Road 95, the armed members of the National Guard monitoring the area 24 hours a day have been a comforting presence, a reassurance in a world where so many things have gone wrong in the last two weeks.
Looting has been widespread in the storm-ravaged area, with items stolen from homes every night, residents say. Even homeowners who have nothing left but debris or a small shed are camping out in trailers and tents to protect their few belongings.
But the Guard plans to pull out today, leaving residents worried about what will happen next.
“These are some good guys — we need them here,” Larry Smith said, talking about the two guardsmen who have stood duty near his parents’ home site. A tornado destroyed more than a dozen homes on the road and damaged many more.
“Seems like every night we are having to run people out of here,” Smith said. “It’s going to be trouble if they [the Guard] don’t stay. We don’t put up with thieves and looters. I’m afraid someone is going to get hurt.”
The rural areas of Higdon, Flat Rock and Shiloh in Jackson County were hard hit by the April 27 tornadoes. At least four twisters attacked the county, stretching 40 miles from south to north, according to Assistant Emergency Management Director Mike Ashburn.
Eight people died — at least four on County Road 95 — and three college students from the area were killed in Tuscaloosa.
Ashburn said authorities don’t have a tally yet of how many homes and businesses were damaged or destroyed.
“We are still working on assessment,” he said. “The damage is in such rural areas and so widespread, we don’t have a final count.”
Smith, who was born and raised in the area, said it is painful to see his community lose so much, and looters are not helping the problem. Dubbed the “mayor of County Road 95” by the guardsmen, he lives in Higdon but shows up every day on his blue four-wheeler and helps out where he can.
Smith and his brother, Steven, have taken turns guarding his parents’ few remaining belongings. On Monday night, tools were stolen from one of the homes.
On Tuesday evening, his brother came back to the area to find his door wide open. He couldn’t find that anything was missing, but it was obvious someone had been there, Smith said.
Just up the road, Edward and Kathleen Anderson said they’ve not had anything stolen, but they are afraid to leave what was their home, now strewn into the woods for half a mile. They camp out in a travel trailer and leave one at a time.
At night, their four dogs bark incessantly, making them believe someone must be out there.
Sheriff’s deputies and state troopers patrol the area, but the guardsmen have provided a steady presence to keep the worst crimes at bay, Smith said. Scottsboro, the county seat, is 40 miles away, making any kind of quick response from law enforcement impossible. None of the small communities in the area is incorporated or has police officers.
“They are stretched so thin,” Smith said, talking about the sheriff’s department. “The damage is so widespread, you can’t keep up with it.”
A dispatcher with the Jackson County Sheriff’s Department said she was not aware that any looters had been arrested in the area. The chief deputy did not return a phone message left Wednesday afternoon.
The guardsmen on duty declined comment. Someone who answered the phone at the Scottsboro Armory, where the guardsmen are stationed, said the command sergeant was not available. The person, who would not give his name, confirmed that the personnel would be pulled from the area today. He said their job had been temporary and, with power restored to the area, they would leave.
“I don’t know why the governor has made this decision, but we need these men here,” Smith said.
Gov. Robert Bentley’s office did not return a call for comment Wednesday.
Chandra Peek, whose husband, Jeff, is pastor of Higdon Baptist Church, agreed the Guard still is needed. The Peeks have spearheaded much of the relief effort in the area.
“I hope they don’t pull out,” Peek said. “We need the National Guard to stay until some of this is resolved. These people can’t leave their homes because there is such a problem with looting.”
Mariann Martin covers healthcare in Chattanooga and the surrounding region. She joined the Times Free Press in February 2011, after covering crime and courts for the Jackson (Tenn.) Sun for two years. Mariann was born in Indiana, but grew up in Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Belize. She graduated from Union University in 2005 with degrees in English and history and has master’s degrees in international relations and history from the University of Toronto. While attending Union, ...