Work toward downtown demolition continues 18 months after storms
by Jennifer Cohron
Nov 11, 2012 | 2790 views | 0 0 comments | 6 6 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Downtown Cordova, as seen in an aerial photo taken on Aug. 22. Photo by: Ron Harris
Downtown Cordova, as seen in an aerial photo taken on Aug. 22. Photo by: Ron Harris
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CORDOVA - Downtown Cordova has become a monument to inertia.

Other nearby structures that were reduced to rubble by two tornadoes on April 27, 2011, were hauled away within weeks of the storms. Yet 18 months and several fires later, the devastated Main Street still stands.

Its shadow eclipses other signs of recovery, such as the church, ball fields, playground, medical clinic, pharmacy and three new homes that have been built within sight of the downtown district.

Cordova residents find it difficult to focus on the future when they must daily face the past.

“I can see downtown from my house, and it is depressing. It reminds me every day of that horrible day,” Beverly Moseley, who lost two homes and a loved one in the tornadoes, recently wrote on Facebook. “I ask that you pray for our town, our leaders and our residents that someday soon all of the destroyed buildings will be torn down and we can start rebuilding our town and lives.”

Dean Harbison, the city’s fire chief and disaster recovery coordinator, said the crumbling buildings are more than an eyesore and a source of psychological stress.

“It is preventing any rebuilding of the downtown district, which housed the majority of our revenue. So it’s an economic problem for the city, not to mention it’s a constant safety hazard,” Harbison said.

Officials at all levels of government have been working toward demolition since last summer.

A flurry of paperwork and phone calls have gone up and down the chain of communication, which has involved dozens of people at various agencies.

A memorandum of agreement that was recently drawn up on the project will require five signatures: two from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, one from the Alabama Historical Commission, one from the Alabama Emergency Management Agency and one from the city.

“I think everyone is working in good faith. There are just a lot of different interests that have come together, and it’s difficult to resolve all of them,” said Larry Childers, a spokesperson for the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs.

The pursuit of demolition has also been complicated by the city’s lack of funding for the project and downtown’s historical significance. The district was built at the turn of the century when Indian Head Mills turned Cordova into a boom town.

Cordova is depending on an estimated $1 million in federal funds to cover having the buildings torn down and hauled away.

“If we use our insurance funds to do demo, then we don’t rebuild. The city can’t afford to do both,” Harbison said.

Harbison said city officials first requested assistance from FEMA regarding demo within a month of the tornado outbreak.

FEMA’s deadline for emergency work such as debris clearance was Oct. 27, 2011. As the summer drew to a close, the city filed for and received an extension for the project.

One month later, downtown Cordova went up in flames on the six-month anniversary of the storm. It was later determined that a pile of brush being burned behind Main Street on the Indian Head Mill land by city employees caused the blaze.

City officials received word in early December that parts of the process would have to be redone because of the fire.

In February, FEMA’s Office of Environmental Planning and Historic Preservation announced that in spite of the damage that had been done, downtown was still eligible for the National Register of Historic Places.

Therefore, its destruction qualified as an “adverse effect” under FEMA’s guidelines, and city leaders would have to “avoid, minimize or mitigate” this consequence of demo before federal funding could be received.

“We chose mitigation, which was providing certified photography and written documentation of the historical value of the buildings,” Harbison said.

Other issues have arisen in the past year, such as a conflict regarding overlapping insurance monies and FEMA funding that was resolved in September.

On Oct. 25, local officials learned that FEMA requires more historical documentation before the project can proceed.

A new timeline has now been established for tasks to be completed by Jan. 4.

FEMA recently dispatched a photographer to downtown to document the historic district and two buildings on Commerce Street according to the National Park Service’s National Register of Historic Places Photographic Policy.

Those images as well as a brief history on downtown Cordova will then be submitted to the State of Alabama Historic Preservation Office for comments.

Elizabeth Brown, deputy state historic preservation officer at SHPO, said in an interview last week that she is no longer advocating for the restoration of three downtown buildings.

In February, Brown said saving the structures was “both practical and possible” in her response to FEMA regarding the adverse effect of demolishing downtown.

Brown, who has also worked closely with the cities of Phil Campbell and Tuscaloosa to document historical structures that the tornadoes destroyed in those cities, added that her office is not the final authority on demolition. However, she is satisfied that every effort is being made to preserve a piece of Cordova’s history before it is lost.

“I know they (Cordova residents) are ready to move forward and I’m ready for them to. As soon as FEMA gets what they need to have to close out the project, we can sign it and move along,” Brown said.