Housing issues nagging at tornado victims
Tuscaloosa’s emergency shelter is a crowded but welcoming place — a clean, repurposed community center in a leafy park far from the debris piles, full of smiling volunteers and fresh-faced church members handing out blankets, Bibles and baby diapers.
Still, it’s getting old for tornado victim Benjamin Alford and his family. They’ve been here three nights, sleeping on cots in a basketball gym. His wife is pregnant. There is no privacy. And as of Saturday morning, they had no idea where to go now that the storm had destroyed their rental house.
“It seems like every day you get more stressed out,” said Alford, 36. “The longer you’re in here, the more agitated you get.”
Somebody mentioned that the Federal Emergency Management Agency was lumbering into action, and that trailer homes might be coming. Alford’s stepdaughter shook her head emphatically: “Unh-unh,” she said. “What if another tornado comes?”
Alford added: “I don’t want to live in no trailer.”
Three days after tornadoes devastated swaths of the southeastern U.S., killing at least 346 people, officials were assessing the toll on their housing stock and weighing options for quickly providing shelter to thousands left homeless.
They also are aware that their decisions could trigger a rerun of issues faced by Gulf Coast communities after Hurricane Katrina, when temporary trailers and prefabricated replacement housing were criticized for their flimsiness and contribution to blight.
But there were more pressing issues Saturday, with untold numbers of residents displaced or lacking basic services. The American Red Cross reported that 1,100 tornado victims woke up Saturday in emergency shelters, 700 of them in the neediest areas of Alabama. While some victims sought out the public shelters, many others have been taken in by churches, relatives and friends.
Richmon Edwards, 80, has been living with his wife in a Tuscaloosa motel that has a waiting list with dozens of names. He’s been told he can’t return home.
Edwards knows this dance well. A New Orleans native, his home there was mostly destroyed by Katrina in 2005.
“I lost everything I had to Katrina, so I came here,” he said. “Now I lost everything here.”
The number of residents left homeless across the region is unclear. In Tuscaloosa alone, an estimated 5,700 structures were damaged or destroyed by the tornado that ripped across 5.9 miles of the city Wednesday.
On Saturday, armies of volunteers took to the streets in Tuscaloosa and elsewhere, cooking food and delivering water and clothing. Government and utility crews rushed to restore power and plow debris. Cadaver dogs again sniffed through piles of wreckage, hunting specifically for individuals reported missing.
Longer-term housing solutions will probably come from contractors eager for work in the sputtering economy. Solutions will also come from FEMA, which has already delivered a small amount of assistance for rentals and repairs.
Tuscaloosa Mayor Walter Maddox, in an interview with “PBS NewsHour,” warned of a “humanitarian crisis” if a quick fix wasn’t forthcoming.
At a meeting Saturday with his City Council, Maddox raised the thorny housing issues that await them.
The city, he said, has provided FEMA with potential trailer park sites; contractors, meanwhile, want to put up prefabricated houses as fast as possible. Both issues became major post-Katrina controversies for Gulf Coast residents, many of whom didn’t want cheap housing stock in their neighborhoods.
“I don’t think any of us would like to see substandard housing built in our areas,” Maddox said. “But then, how do you tell someone you’re not going to be able to have a home?”
FEMA officials — perhaps mindful of the agency’s public relations drubbing after its poor post-Katrina performance — have taken pains to show that they’re on the move. FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate toured Alabama with President Obama on Friday, and plans to do so again Sunday, joined by other top administration officials in a trip that will also take them to Mississippi.
FEMA liaison officers have deployed in five states, and affected residents are already able to register their damage online or over the phone. The agency is working with the states to determine whether they will need temporary units such as trailers.
“While hazards, such as high winds and tornadoes, could potentially affect any type of housing or other structure, FEMA will work closely with the state, local governments and residents over the next months to help them in their recovery and to help prepare and protect against future losses,” said spokeswoman Rachel Racusen.
In Alabama, the volunteer effort served to buck up spirits. In Tuscaloosa’s hard-hit Alberta City neighborhood, volunteers grilled hamburgers and handed out bags of donated groceries and sacks of ice to anyone who asked.
Baumhowers Wings, a restaurant in Birmingham, had sent a truck. Volunteers from the nearby Mercedes-Benz dealership could be seen helping out around town.
But there was also frustration and fear.
On Saturday afternoon, a mother walked to a medical station with a wailing baby and was swarmed by volunteers, who offered medical attention, diapers and formula. The baby was soon calmed.
But the mother was not. She said she had been without power and gas for days in her apartment, feeding her family with Burger King and living by candlelight. She declined to give her name because she is an illegal immigrant.
“The kids are so scared,” she said in Spanish.
Sixty miles away in downtown Birmingham, Kendra Coleman, 27, and her husband and three young boys were holed up in an auditorium that had been converted into a shelter.
The family’s apartment collapsed in nearby Pratt City, forcing them to walk away with just their coats and Coleman’s purse. They’d spent three nights in the cold, cavernous building, and they’d had enough.
But Coleman said that when she called FEMA on Friday, she was told she would have to wait 10 to 14 days.
“They said, ‘We’ll call you and set up and appointment,’ ” she said. “I said, ‘That’s fine, but what am I supposed to do until then? I need beds. I need water.’ ”
The family tried to return to its neighborhood to collect a few belongings, but was turned away by police. At the shelter, Coleman said, they were not permitted to shower. Her boys were beginning to tire out.
“They tell me, ‘Momma, I wanna go home,’ and I just want to cry,” she said. “Because I have no idea where home is anymore.”
Bermudez reported from Birmingham and Linthicum and Fausset from Tuscaloosa. Times staff writer Carol J. Williams in Los Angeles contributed to this report.