CORDOVA, Ala.—James Ruston’s house was knocked off its foundation by tornadoes that barreled through town last month and is still uninhabitable. He thought help had finally arrived when a truck pulled up to his property with a mobile home from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Then he got the call: Single-wide mobile homes, like the FEMA one, are illegal in the city of Cordova.
The city’s refusal to let homeless residents occupy temporary housing provided by FEMA has sparked outrage in this central Alabama town of 2,000, with angry citizens filling a meeting last week and circulating petitions to remove the man many blame for the decision, Mayor Jack Scott.
Ruston and many others view the city’s decision as heartless, a sign that leaders don’t care that some people are barely surviving in the rubble of a blue-collar town.
“People have to live somewhere. What’s it matter if it’s in a trailer?” asked Felicia Boston, standing on the debris-strewn lot where a friend has lived in a tent since a tornado destroyed his home April 27.
Scott has heard all the complaints, and he isn’t apologizing. He said he doesn’t want run-down mobile homes parked all over town years from now.
“I don’t feel guilty,” he said. “I can look anyone in the eye.”
Located about 35 miles northwest of Birmingham, Cordova was hit by a pair of powerful tornadoes on April 27, the day twisters killed more than 300 people across the Southeast. Officials say 238 died in Alabama, the highest death toll for any state in a spring of violent weather.
An EF-3 twister with winds of at least 140 mph slammed into the town around 5:30 a.m., knocking out power and damaging numerous buildings. An EF-4 with winds around 170 mph struck about 12 hours later, killing four people and cutting a path of destruction a half-mile wide through town.
Scores of homes, businesses and city buildings were destroyed or damaged by the time the winds died down. Nearly every red-brick storefront was whacked along Main Street, which is now deserted and blocked by a chain-link fence.
Residents whose homes were destroyed assumed they would be able to live in one of the hundreds of long, skinny mobile homes that FEMA is providing as temporary housing for tornado victims. After all, the Cordova Police Department, a pharmacy, a bank and City Hall all have moved into similar trailers since the storm.
But the city enacted a law three years ago that bans the type of mobile homes provided by FEMA, called single-wide trailers. Older single-wide mobile homes were grandfathered in under the law and double-wide mobile homes are still allowed, Scott said, but new single-wides aren’t allowed and a tornado isn’t any reason to change the law, even temporarily.
The city’s stance prompted an outcry that’s not getting any quieter, especially with other cities with similar laws granting waivers. About 200 people attended a community meeting last night where some tried to shout down Scott.
“There are trailers all over here but (Scott) wants to clean all the trash out. He doesn’t like lower-class people,” said Harvey Hastings.
The cotton mill, brick plant and coal mine that once made Cordova prosperous shut down years ago, but native Tony Tidwell said leaders seem to believe residents are flush with cash and can afford to build big, new houses to replace the mobile homes and small frame homes that twisters blew away.
“Let the people have a place to live,” he said. To make matters worse, he said, the city is imposing a mean double standard when it refuses to let residents live in FEMA trailers but is using a nearly identical structure for police headquarters.
Scott said the city can use small trailers because it’s for the common good.
“It’s temporary and we know it’s temporary,” said the mayor. “We’re trying to provide services for everyone.”
Storm victims are supposed to live in FEMA housing for no longer than 18 months after a disaster, yet about 260 campers are still occupied by survivors of hurricanes Katrina and Rita on the Gulf Coast last more than five years after those storms. The same thing could happen in Cordova if the city bends it rules to help tornado victims, Scott said.
Officials with FEMA have said it’s a local issue and they remain ready to offer help to storm victims.
“We have several options available, and work with each community, to provide the best alternative possible for those who need housing assistance,” Michael Byrne, FEMA’s federal coordinating officer for Alabama, said in a statement. “We stand ready to help.”
Ruston said he doesn’t want to live in a mobile home forever, and he didn’t want to leave Cordova to move in with a relative after his FEMA trailer was turned away.
Now, he said, it might not be worth going back.
“If we’re going to have a mayor like that I’ll just go elsewhere,” he said.