In “Ghost House,” Alabama writer Anita Miller Garner explores Southern beliefs about what is and what is not worth saving, especially as time has moved more and more people away from rural places. The essay also weaves through mythically Southern ideas about family and community, and includes commentary on narratives about environmental consciousness.
by Anita Miller Garner
When we pulled into the gravel driveway, the house I was born in loomed ahead of us like a wrecked ship run aground. The wing nearest to us sat at a slant, off its foundation. A tarp that six months ago had neatly covered the mangled roof of the main structure now blew about in the wind in wispy threads like shredded sails. Deeper into the back yard lay a supernaturally neat stack of giant mature tree trunks. All three of us in the RV—my brother, my husband, and I—collectively took a deep breath. Today and many days to come would not be easy.
We needed to retrieve pictures and letters and to empty the attic so carpenters and roofers could rebuild the roof of the main structure. The wing, beyond repair, would have to be bull-dozed. Inside the house, several weeks of rain had permeated the ruined tarp, forming a moldy soup of unrecognizable furniture that had come unglued and otherwise melted. In some rooms, the force of the giant trees as they crashed into the roof knocked the plaster off the wooden ceilings, and now it lay in clumps on the soggy carpet growing mounds of furry black mold. We wore masks and protective gloves. Brown sludge saturated our shoes.
The last time I had seen the house at Slick Hill was six months earlier, right after the Easter Sunday 2020 storm pushed two tall elms and two enormous water oaks onto the roof. My earliest memories are of playing under these mature trees and watching how their limbs reacted differently to the wind, the elms dancing about gracefully while the solid unmoving water oak limbs reminded me of the thick legs of rhinoceros in The World Book Encyclopedias my brother and I loved to mull over for hours. Powerful straight-line winds had damaged more than half of the houses in this tiny Alabama county seat town, so by the time my husband and I drove four hours and met my brother to survey the damage for the first time, church buses lined the street at the local Baptist church and throngs of volunteers – a few with chainsaws – roamed the little town to minister to the residents, most of whom still had no power. Even though the entire state was in a COVID lockdown, few wore masks as they crowded around a food truck. Our house was the one just beyond the city limits sign. The day before, my brother had paid a timber company to bring its heaviest equipment and move the trees from what was left of the house. Our plan was to cover the roof with the biggest tarps we could find, hoping to stabilize the situation until we could find a crew to replace the entire roof. Maybe. Finding a crew is easier thought of than done in a place this rural. And no Baptists showed up at our house to see if they could help.
Houses in Alabama areas this deserted are not worth as much as the land they sit on, so there is little reason to try to sell them when the old occupants die. In fact, it is not easy to get crews willing to work in a place that is a long drive from any store except one recently built Dollar General. But half-destroyed rural houses are what we have seen from the roadside more and more frequently as we have driven the length of the Alabama since April 27, 2011. That was the day an unprecedented outbreak of killer tornadoes raked diagonally across the state like the fingers of a giant hand, killing 247 people in Alabama alone. Of the 237 victims whose whereabouts were known when they were mortally injured, 206 were within a mile-and-a-half of one of twelve deadly tornado paths that crossed the state that day. The weeks following that outbreak were when we first noticed the houses with blue tarps. As we drove from the most northwestern corner of Alabama to Tuscaloosa then later to Monroeville and then to Dothan, the paths of the tornadoes crossed the roads we traveled, and everywhere little towns and forests were touched, we saw the roofs of houses, barns, stores, and gas stations partially covered with blue tarps.
Since then, storm-damaged ghost houses partially covered with blue tarps have cropped up in our regular paths on an ever- increasing basis. Like many Alabamians, when we go to the ocean, we travel down US Highway 231 from central Alabama all the way to what has been dubbed the Forgotten Coast, that section of the northwestern Florida Gulf Coast that should have belonged to the states of Alabama and Georgia but instead got chopped off to become the Florida Panhandle for complicated political reasons that date back to the time before Alabama became a state in 1819. The land and houses and agriculture and accents blend seamlessly with Alabama. As do the blue tarps. After Hurricane Michael landed as a Category 5 and swept into the panhandle area, driving through there has been like seeing a ninety-mile path of intense tornado damage. I first saw it from traveling I-10 a week after Michael struck. Coming down the hill from Tallahassee headed west toward the Apalachicola River basin, trees lay snapped in two and stripped of leaves as far as the eye could see, all the way to Marianna. What had been a green verdant subtropical vista a week earlier was now totally brown and broken.
We have crisscrossed this area a great deal in the two years that have followed – most recently in the first week of November – and the destruction has barely begun to heal. Michael destroyed or damaged 500-550 million pine trees alone, causing ‘catastrophic’ damage in a large swath. You can drive for miles and miles and see little but mounds of decaying trees that have been piled up by heavy forest machinery or areas where the broken trees rot untouched in the fields where they lived. Federal grants were only made available a full two years later to this region where $1.3 billion of forests were destroyed and where many people make their living growing and harvesting timber. (Although Florida has been diligent to protect this area’s natural forests around streams and wetlands and in large protected areas such as Apalachicola National Forest, Tate’s Hell State Forest, and the beautiful Chipola River Greenway, America’s need for toilet paper and paper towels supports pine timber as a crop here—as it does for families such as ours in Alabama.) Ghost houses with blue tarps are a study here, from Blountstown to Marianna, from Chipola to Wewahitchka. They have become landmarks to me. Here is the same house in Marianna, I think, one of those I saw two years ago with trees blown on top. Then I saw it a year later with a blue tarp tacked down with wood strips. And now two years later, the blue tarp is shredding, wisps of it blowing in the breeze. These blue tarp houses are no different than the ghost houses all over Alabama, in places such as Phil Campbell, Beauregard, or even areas too remote to even have a name—like Slick Hill.
Alabama and the adjacent Florida panhandle have always had storms, yes. My husband’s and my ancestors have lived in Alabama not even three-hundred years, but when we met, each of us had a ghost house story passed down in the family. In each case, a tornado had moved a house and set it down on top of a garden spot so that the family could remove floor boards and harvest spring onions and other April garden crops. My own father explained to me that the only way to get relief from a late summer drought – and in Alabama, we can have severe and blistering late summer droughts where there is not a cloud in the sky and the temperature soars over 100 degrees for days on end – was to wait on an Eastern gale. The old folks, he said, claimed that was the only way to get rain on late summer crops some years and that an Eastern gale might last up to three days. I imagine my ancestors drifting for generations down the East Coast from New England to Virginia, to North or South Carolina and finally to Alabama. The Atlantic hurricane season runs from June to November with the huge uptick of storms occurring in late summer. No matter if the hurricanes hit the mainland from the Atlantic itself or the Gulf, they all swirl counterclockwise so that regardless of where you live on the Eastern seaboard or the Gulf, you will first get struck by heavy winds from the East when a hurricane bears down on the coast and moves inland. An Eastern gale. Sometimes these Hurricanes move on out quickly, like 2020’s Hurricane Zeta that stung Mobile with gusts up to 91 mph but raced on toward Georgia and the Carolinas. Sometimes they sit around like 2020’s Hurricane Sally and dump inches and inches of rain but also blow tree- and roof-damaging winds, all spanning three days on the Alabama Gulf Coast.
By the time we all met up again back at Slick Hill, the new roof was on and is splendid. We were not too sad to walk on the foundation that had been the wing because we discuss what will need to be done. Hope for the future. The contractor suggested painting the house white, and my brother and I liked that since we remembered when the house had indeed been white, back before the new wing had been added. Unfortunately, the latest storm Zeta’s straight line winds had caused further damage in the county, but thankfully this time Slick Hill was spared. Many more mature trees had been lost in Central Alabama due to Zeta, but this time none required our immediate attention. The damage this time was not nearly as bad as the Florida panhandle.
Still, in this year 2020 alone, our family which spans the state of Alabama and, by marriage, spills over into northern Florida has been under siege by weather. On the Tennessee River, we have endured six floods that destroyed two piers and dumped mud, whole trees, and enough plastic bottles and old tires to fill countless contractor bags on our little strip of shoreline. Six times. Six floods. The house at Slick Hill will require much more time and work. In Fairhope, our son’s family currently lives in a house with a blue tarp roof neatly nailed down with wood strips until the contractors can get to his name on their long list. The road to their house—just this past summer shaded by live oaks and an oasis in the heat—is now mud-covered, the forest nearby filled with snapped trees. Just hours before the second storm Zeta hit, our son was on the phone begging the tree company holding his deposit to please come cut down the gorgeous live oak already declared dead by two foresters, the tree a victim of root damage from Sally a month earlier. The live oak leaned precariously over a child’s bedroom, and Zeta was on the way. The house structure will survive, but the structure of this young family may be forever altered. Will the bride be able to forgive her husband for bringing her to this edge of Alabama that requires her to flee for higher ground with two babies in the back seat two months in a row? News from South Alabama is not good.
Alabama is a far more beautiful and ecologically diverse state than most people realize. From the Tennessee Valley with its limestone caves in the east to areas such as The Dismals in the west, down to the beautiful vistas of Mount Cheaha with that area’s occasional pockets of old growth timber and the rare fauna that go with it, all the way to the mind-blowing diversity of the Mobile Tensaw River Delta where the majority of the rivers of Alabama drain, Alabama is still The Beautiful, but you have to look hard. Since the industrial revolution, in Alabama we have cut down the forests, dammed the rivers, mined the natural deposits of coal and iron ore and even gold, drilled for oil, dumped nuclear and chemical waste in less-populated areas, farmed in ways that eroded and depleted the soil. But the land has always been generous and given us more and more. When the land wore out for cotton, we turned to peanuts and pine timber. Yet, the land has always been there for us, surprising us in new ways with each generation. For centuries we have marveled at the bounty of seafood we enjoy from Mobile Bay, but few of us appreciated its nursery, the Delta, just north of the bay, until recently. According to Ben Raines who has spent the past twenty years documenting the area, “there are more species of fish, turtles, snails, salamanders, crawfish, and mussels here than another river system in America.” For the past 300 years we have taken this all for granted.
Fact is, no living person knows for sure what the weather history of Alabama has been…. or will be. Atlantic hurricane records have only been kept since 1851, and tornado records before the 20th century are mostly oral histories except for a few random old newspaper articles using archaic terms such as ‘cyclone’ or ‘hurrican’ to describe tornadic activity. But it takes no political agenda to see that Category 5 hurricanes do hit the coast and catastrophic tornadoes move from West to East over our land. It takes no advanced degree to realize there is currently a poisonous coal ash ‘pond’ where twenty-one million tons of coal ash were dumped as a by-product of electric power production, a toxic accident waiting to happen and only separated from a crucial point on the Mobile Tensaw Delta by a narrow earthen dam. Currently the company that put it there has plans to remove the water from that holding area of poisonous waste but no plans at all to remove the twenty-one million tons of toxic coal ash. All it will take is one good flood to give us a big lesson in what happens when toxic industrial waste meets a natural seafood hatchery. What if this is not the only lesson weather could soon be teaching us?
In these days of blue tarp roofs like random abstract billboards coming sooner or later to a road near you, I cannot speak for other Alabamians, but I myself am not feeling very lucky.
Anita Miller Garner lives and writes on the Tennessee River in North Alabama. She recently worked with her husband Edward Garner, publisher at Mindbridge Press, to edit Alabama Rivers, A Celebration and Challenge by William Deutsch, short-listed for the Southern Environment Law Center for the Reed Environmental Writing Award, 2019. She blogs about life on the Tennessee River at amgarner.blogspot.com.
Ben Raines, “How Alabama Got Cheated Out of Florida’s Panhandle,” al.com, June 06, 2017.
Laura Cassells. Florida Phoenix. May 29, 2020.
Debbie Elliott. “On a Tour of ‘Alabama’s Amazon’: Flora, Fauna, and Glimpses of Alabama’s Past,” Valley Public Radio FM 89, Morning Edition.
Carly Berlin, Southernlymag.org, May 21, 2020.