In a May 7, 2011 file photo, blue tarps grace the roofs of many of the homes still livable along the path of a killer tornado in Tuscaloosa, Ala. Thousands of Southerners who lost everything last month to a pack of killer twisters will need new homes after they move out of shelters and relatives' spare bedrooms, but the types of housing they find will vary widely depending on where they live. (AP Photo/Dave Martin, File)
By JAY REEVES
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Thousands of Southerners who lost everything last month to a pack of killer twisters will need new homes after they move out of shelters and relatives’ spare bedrooms, but the types of housing they find will vary widely depending on where they live.
The communities that caught the brunt of the tornadoes range from rural crossroads in Mississippi to mid-sized Alabama cities like Tuscaloosa and Huntsville. Places like Smithville, Miss., had few rental houses or apartments to begin with; hard-hit Birmingham has a much larger stock that’s ready for almost immediate occupancy.
Unlike after Hurricane Katrina, when crews set up thousands of nearly identical campers provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency all over coastal Mississippi and southern Louisiana, officials say different areas hit by the tornadoes will require varying solutions.
“To say one is going to fit all doesn’t work,” FEMA deputy administrator Richard Serino said during a stop last week in Alabama. “It’s going to require different options.”
Singlewide mobile homes already are parked in the northwest Alabama town of Phil Campbell, which was slammed hard and had little spare housing to begin with. The city of Tuscaloosa, meanwhile, doesn’t allow manufactured homes, meaning houses, apartments and new construction are likely to be key.
All across Alabama, state and federal officials already have identified thousands of apartments that are available and could be rented to storm victims.
Housing Secretary Shaun Donovan said the Federal Housing Administration also has located about 1,000 foreclosed homes that could be available for families to purchase with government assistance in Alabama, and similar work is going on in Mississippi, Tennessee and Georgia, which also were hit in the April 27 outbreak.
Final decisions about long-term housing will be up to local leaders and individuals, Donovan said, and one size won’t fit all. The government learned that lesson after Katrina, he said.
“This is not about the federal government coming and telling a community what it should look like. This is about the local vision for the community with our help and partnership in achieving that,” Donovan said Monday while touring a neighborhood in Birmingham still littered with bricks, overturned vehicles and splintered rafters. “In some cases that means rebuilding what was there, and in other cases that means coming back and building something new.”
After spending days in a mass shelter in Tuscaloosa where crying babies and snoring adults make it hard to sleep, Claudie Jackson is hoping for a new home to replace the destroyed apartment where he and his wife survived by hiding in a bathtub. Jackson said he now fears mobile homes and campers after seeing what a twister with winds up to 190 mph did to hundreds of houses, and he won’t be comfortable in anything other than a brick house.
“Make them affordable so people can get in them,” said Jackson, 45. “Something in the $500 (a month) range people can afford after they pay their utilities and phone, health insurance and all.”
Living in a small tent in their front yard near the rubble of their home in rural Calhoun County, Janice and Steve Heath aren’t picky.
“I hope I can just get a house,” she said. “Even if we have to move, it really doesn’t matter.”
The National Weather Service and state emergency officials are still tallying how many homes were destroyed when waves of tornadoes mowed through the South, killing hundreds in seven states as entire neighborhoods were wiped out in some areas. Alabama took the hardest hit: The state said 236 people were dead at last count, and 42 of the state’s 67 counties have been approved to receive disaster assistance.
In Mississippi, state emergency management spokesman Jeff Rent said officials will help tornado victims secure mobile homes from FEMA in hard-hit Monroe County, where 15 people died and dozens of homes and businesses were damaged. The challenge is finding suitable sites for the mobile homes, especially in hard-hit areas like Smithville, which was littered with debris, Rent said. In Bertie County, N.C., residents left homeless by a mid-April tornado outbreak are living in FEMA trailers.
The director of the Alabama Emergency Management Agency, Art Faulkner, said a task force considering long-term housing already has met twice. He said it’s still unclear what the housing solutions might look like by this fall, when most if not all of the storm debris should be removed.
“Not only do we want to get (victims) in a safe structure for the short term, we want to get them in a permanent place, so I think you’re going to see a number of different options through the state,” Faulkner said. “We want to make sure that everything is on the table and that we do this right from the start and meet the ultimate goal of getting them into a permanent structure as soon as possible.”
Janice Williams, who stayed at a Red Cross shelter in Birmingham’s city auditorium after a tornado devoured her neighborhood, doesn’t want to live in a temporary trailer, and she doesn’t want assistance with rent.
She wants to move someplace new and make a start fresh, leaving behind the property where 100 years of family history was demolished when the twister hit the sturdy brick home that had been in her family for generations.
“I want to rebuild, but I don’t want to rebuild there,” she said. “Not after what happened.”
AP reporters Bob Johnson in east Alabama; Tom Breen and Eric Tucker in Birmingham; Holbrook Mohr in Mississippi; and Alan Blinder in Tuscaloosa contributed to this report.