Earlier this year, footage of tornadoes and severe storms ripping through the Southern states gripped the nation. As news reports flooded the airwaves, people soon realized these weren’t typical tornadoes. Communities were demolished and many lives were lost. Across Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, Tennessee and Virginia, the storms on April 27 claimed an estimated 300 lives.
Less than one month later, an EF-5 twister tore through Joplin, Mo., flattening everything in its path. Missouri already had been hit by five destructive tornadoes that rolled through St. Louis and its outlying suburbs a month earlier; the most powerful tornado had an EF-4 rating.
The aftermath of these storms has left damage that hasn’t been seen since Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast in 2005. The Gulf Coast still is rebuilding and Missouri and the Southern states have a similarly long road ahead of them. Since disaster struck, remodelers, builders, architects and manufacturers have banded together to restore the South and rebuild towns from the ground up.
Economic Considerations in Alabama
“It’s kind of scary to think about what has to be done,” says Chris Youngs, CAPS, CGP, vice president of construction at Homewood, Ala.-based BMR Homes Inc. Youngs is focusing his work on residential projects in the Birmingham, Ala., area, which was one of the cities affected by the tornadoes. “I’m probably booked for work all the way through the first of the year.” Despite interest in rebuilding, many communities are tackling the issue of how to rebuild a community that had little economic stability before the tornado and has even less now. “Many families are taking their insurance money and moving on. They see this as their chance to start new and that’s what they’re doing,” Youngs says.
The economic situation is intensified because the loss of houses and businesses means less income for communities from property taxes. In addition, many affected families are underinsured or uninsured. Although the Washington, D.C.-based Federal Emergency Management Agency exists to help families in this situation, the funds uninsured families receive often aren’t sufficient to finance a new house. Because of his proximity to the Gulf Coast, Youngs remembers some people affected by Hurricane Katrina purchased cars and jet skis with the grant money. “They weren’t using it to rebuild because they couldn’t afford to rebuild,” he recalls. “There were no checks and balances and when they received a check, they blew it.”
Kristopher Nikolich, AIA, partner with Design Initiative, Birmingham, is donating his time and expertise to rebuilding the Birmingham area through initiatives with his firm and with the Birmingham chapter of the Washington-based American Institute of Architects. He echoes Youngs’ economic concerns. “Some neighborhoods didn’t have a strong economic base or may have been declining communities,” he says. “It’s a challenge when you’re presented with how to rebuild or reinvent a declining community. One has to ask if it is sustainable to rebuild a community. You start asking a lot of questions. You have to accept that some homeowners can’t afford to rebuild. How do you rebuild in a neighborhood that was struggling to survive to begin with?”
Although no one wants to be the first to say so, it is possible that some communities may not be rebuilt. Those communities that choose to rebuild could take anywhere from several months to several years, depending on momentum, according to Nikolich. For example, he says, parts of downtown Tuscaloosa, Ala., that are close to the university have a more rapid rebuilding trajectory than some of the outlying suburbs because they have funds and motivation to rebuild quickly. Some residents in the Pleasant Grove community, about 11 miles west of Birmingham, already are rebuilding. Others have yet to start, and still others are forced to abandon their communities. There is no set formula to rebuild after such an unprecedented event.