Tornado Creates Worries in Bankrupt Alabama County

After months of hearing how Jefferson County, which filed the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history in November, is broke, residents are curious about how much local assistance is available to help them recover from recent tornadoes that killed two and wiped out scores of homes and businesses.
by | January 25, 2012

Willie Williams Jr. was worried as he walked through his tornado-tossed neighborhood to his daughter's elementary school.

His home is in Jefferson County, which filed the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history in November, and Williams wonders how the county will rebuild the school as well as pay crews to clear debris and do other services.

"We're lacking. We need more help," Williams said. "Everybody just needs to pray."

After months of hearing how the county government is broke, residents are curious about how much local assistance is available to help them recover from tornadoes that killed two and wiped out scores of homes and businesses.

Touring the area, Gov. Robert Bentley promised the state will do everything it can to help Jefferson County, the state's largest county.

"We'll do whatever is necessary," Bentley said outside the mangled shell of Center Point Elementary School. As he spoke, chainsaws screamed in the distance.

Bentley wasn't specific about what help may be coming, but county emergency management coordinator Allen Kniphfer said the answer may be a combination of federal and state dollars, plus equipment and personnel loans from cities.

"If people want to donate to help us we'll take it," Kniphfer said.

The National Weather Service said at least six different tornadoes skipped across central Alabama, causing damage across a wide area. The strongest hit Jefferson County with winds up to 150 mph.

Jefferson County leaders have said they would likely use reserve money to pay for emergency assistance, but the state and federal governments could end up reimbursing part or all of the cost.

The director of the Alabama Emergency Management Agency, Art Faulkner, said state troopers have provided traffic control and additional security to help Jefferson County.

"We are there to help the local government when they get to the point where they can't effectively respond," said Faulkner.

Jefferson County has reduced its payroll by more than 500 people through layoffs and attrition. With the county citing more than $4 billion in debt and in search of new revenue to replace a tax that was struck down by courts, leaders have closed satellite courthouses and curtailed operating hours in some offices.

Clara Carlin, 74, sat outside her home of 30 years as a Southern Baptist relief team removed fallen trees that punched holes in her roof. Carlin said she has a hard time trusting assurances of aid from Washington all the way down to City Hall.

"I don't think that it's anytime soon that the government can help anybody get over this," said Carlin, who plans to move in with her sister temporarily.

Monica Finley, a second-grade teacher at Center Point Elementary, had her own concerns about government response as she awaited Bentley's arrival at the school. She looked across a neighborhood that was heavily damaged by a twister and feared for the displaced residents. "They're going to need housing," she said.

During his visit to the school, Bentley received a report that included 20 suggestions from the Tornado Recovery Action Council, which he appointed after twisters killed about 250 people across the state last April. Bentley said he will immediately implement two of the suggestions, one for using $72 million in federal relief money to building community and individual shelters and safe rooms, and the other urging local governments to develop disaster plans.

Storms could hit the state again Thursday, although not with the ferocity of the system Monday. Weather service meteorologist Mark Linhares said while it was somewhat uncommon to have tornadoes in January, such storms are hardly rare.

The state is so close to the Gulf of Mexico that moist air moves inland year-round, helping create instability and bringing with it the possibility of storms.

"We can have severe weather any month of the year," Linhares said.

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.

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