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Tornado-ravaged Ala. town awaits FEMA aid

CORDOVA, Ala. -- Main Street in this old mill town looks about the same as it did the day after tornadoes killed about 250 people across Alabama a year and a half ago: Battered red bricks and broken glass litter the pavement, and the buildings still standing are rickety and roofless.

The entire one-block downtown, still deemed unsafe, remains sealed off by a chain-link fence. City officials blame the Federal Emergency Management Agency, saying the money to demolish the old buildings is mired in miles of red tape.

When one request for photos or documentation is met, FEMA makes another, the mayor and others in this town of 2,100 say.

"It's very frustrating," said Mayor Drew Gilbert, a 25-year-old Cordova native who was on the City Council before taking office this month. "You would think it's been touched and seen now by everyone who needs to touch and see it."

On April 27, 2011, dozens of tornadoes ripped across the southeast, spawned by freakish weather. Hundreds were killed and thousands of homes and businesses were damaged or destroyed, causing more than $1 billion in damage.

While cleanup and demolition projects are moving along in devastated communities like Tuscaloosa and Hackleburg -- where wrecked homes and businesses are mostly gone and new ones are being built -- Cordova's downtown stands out as an eerie reminder of the destruction.

FEMA officials say they're only doing their job in Cordova, documenting damaged buildings and covering all the details before providing money to tear them down. The struggling city can't afford the estimated $933,000 cost of demolishing the structures, Gilbert said, so it's counting on FEMA to fill the gap.

"This project involves demolition of multiple historically significant structures and requires that FEMA consider all pertinent environmental and historic preservation laws before funding the project," the agency said in response to questions.

Located in coal country about 35 miles northwest of Birmingham, Cordova began in the 1880s at a spot where two railroad lines converged. A textile mill operated for about seven decades before closing in 1962.

The mill's failure sent Cordova into a tailspin. Most of the 19 or so buildings in the downtown block were vacant and deteriorating by the time the twisters struck last year.

A long-term plan sponsored by FEMA initially recommended reclaiming downtown Cordova, but Cordova Fire Chief Dean Harbison said an in-depth examination revealed major structural problems and city officials decided to demolish the entire block.

"They're saying they should be finished with the review by Jan. 4," Harbison said of FEMA. That means no decision will be made on demolition for at least two more months, he said, and the two-year anniversary of the tornadoes could pass with the fractured buildings still there.

Gilbert said the downtown could become a home for new businesses now that a new four-lane highway linking Birmingham and Memphis, Tenn., runs just a few miles from the city, but that can't happen until the old buildings are demolished.

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