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Locals fear loss of interest in Southern tornadoes

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Rev. Heath Southerland, left, prays with a storm victim during a church service in Hackleburg, Ala., Sunday, May 1, 2011. The church was heavily damaged in last Wednesday's tornado and for them to use a tent. Rev. Heath Southerland, left, prays with a storm victim during a church service in Hackleburg, Ala., Sunday, May 1, 2011. The church was heavily damaged in last Wednesday's tornado and for them to use a tent.

HARVEST, Ala. (AP) — The Rev. Michael Katschke is worried, but not about running out of the food, diapers and other supplies he hands out to tornado victims at the Crosswinds United Methodist Church in northern Alabama.

Katschke is worried about the rest of the country just moving on.

"They're going to forget us just like they forgot about Japan," he said.

The search for bodies is still going on in parts of the tornado-ravaged South, but the country's worst natural disaster since Hurricane Katrina is already fading from the public consciousness, pushed aside first by the royal wedding and now by Osama bin Laden's death.

That means donations and out-of-state volunteers will likely drop off as the region tries to recover after tornadoes killed at least 329 people and destroyed communities across seven states.

"It depends on the news cycle, but the reality is, you generally only have three or four days" to keep the attention of the broader public, said Mickey Caison, who oversees disaster relief efforts for the Southern Baptist Convention's North American Mission Board.

"Typically, when the national media moves on, that window of opportunity closes."

Officials in Alabama, which suffered the most widespread destruction and the heaviest loss of life, are keenly aware of that. They've been trying to keep their state's needs at the top of the national agenda.

That was part of the reason Tuscaloosa Mayor Walt Maddox decided to meet with actor Charlie Sheen this week, when the former "Two and a Half Men" star toured the devastation in the college town where at least 41 people died in the storms.

"Anytime we can get national attention about the plight of Tuscaloosa, I think it's a positive thing," he said. "It's important that we're not forgotten."

While national and local relief groups are still tallying donations, many say they expect to see a sharp drop-off in contributions for tornado relief after about the first week. That loss of momentum is rarely regained.

And it makes it harder to convince donors in six months or a year that the needs are still urgent.

"When people see the images on television, they're literally seeing 32 inches of a disaster," Red Cross national spokeswoman Laura Howe said. "I don't think a lot of people realize how long-lasting the effects of a disaster are."

Take, for example, New Orleans and its ongoing recovery from Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

"We are still living with Katrina every day," said Vanessa Gueringer of New Orleans. "All these years later. Every day."

Gueringer is the chairwoman of A Community Voice, a group that works on behalf of residents in the Lower Ninth Ward, a predominantly black neighborhood that suffered some of the worst destruction.

Although the effects of Katrina are still being felt in everything from blighted properties to flood control efforts, Gueringer said, Katrina has become essentially a local issue. National attention tends to return only on major anniversaries, and then news stories gloss over the ongoing problems, she said.

"They'll go out of their way to find one or two good things so they can say the city has recovered," she said. "Meanwhile, we still have water coming up over our streets, we still have blighted houses and we still have kids being bused out of this neighborhood to go to school."

National attention, however, doesn't have to waver from what can turn out to be a bigger story than the disasters themselves, namely the long-term consequences, said Kelly McBride, a media ethics expert at the Poynter Institute.

But she said that once the spotlight leaves a place, it rarely returns.

"I wish the media would sustain stories on a long-term basis, and some can," she said, pointing to ongoing coverage of Haiti following the catastrophic January 2010 earthquake. "But the challenge for a local disaster, especially if it doesn't involve a Los Angeles or a Boston, is that there's not going to be a lot of demand on the national news for coverage."

Regardless of what replaces the tornadoes on front pages and nightly newscasts, outside aid will still come in, from groups like the Red Cross. The Federal Emergency Management Agency will have a long-term presence in the disaster areas.

"FEMA is here for the long haul," said FEMA Deputy Administrator Richard Serino, who toured parts of Alabama on Friday with his boss, Administrator Craig Fugate. Serino said the recovery will take months and even longer.

Groups who see a permanent drop in donations mostly have themselves to blame, said Ruthellen Rubin, a consultant in the nonprofit industry. She said they need to create and nurture relationships with new donors drawn in by a disaster.

"It is the nonprofit's responsibility to take ownership of the donor. Ditto for volunteers," she said. "The competition for dollars is fierce in the social sector."

At the Alabama church, Katschke watched as a steady stream of victims left his "mini-Walmart" with arms full of grocery bags.

"People donate or come out for a day and lift a tree branch and feel good about themselves. OK, that's fine," Katschke said. "But if you want to keep feeling good about yourself, I hope you'll come back later and ask what the needs are. Because we'll still be here."


Associated Press writer Jay Reeves in Tuscaloosa, Ala., contributed to this report.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.

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