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Tornado Slams Jefferson County Contemplating Bankruptcy

Tornado Strains Jefferson County
In the aftermath of a severe tornado, Kelly Giddens helps University of Alabama law student Daniel Hinton remove belongings from his destroyed home in the Cedar Crest neighborhood on April 28, 2011 in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Photographer: Jessica McGowan/Getty Images

Jefferson County, Alabama, already on the brink of bankruptcy, faces another emergency after a tornado ripped through the state’s most populous county, destroying 1,000 homes and killing at least 30 people.

The county of 660,000 people, which may run out of cash in July, was devastated yesterday when a tornado with winds of more than 100 miles an hour (161 kilometers an hour) tore through the west side and then slammed into Birmingham’s northern neighborhoods. More than 100 people were injured.

Police, firefighters and public-works crews from the county’s more than 40 municipalities have started search-and-rescue operations, and the death toll and injuries will probably climb, said Mark Kelly, a spokesman for Jefferson County’s Emergency Management Agency. At least 1,000 homes in Jefferson County were “flattened and unliveable,” said Allen Kniphfer, the agency’s executive director.

“You sometimes say nothing else can happen,” David Carrington, president of the county commission, said at a meeting in Birmingham to discuss the emergency. “I’m not going to say that anymore.”

At least 280 people died in six states, including 194 in Alabama, as dozens of storms tore apart homes and businesses, the Associated Press reported. As many as 1 million residents were left without power, Governor Robert Bentley said.

Deadliest Day

It was the deadliest single day for tornadoes in the U.S. since April 3, 1974, when 310 people died, according to AccuWeather Inc.

Jefferson County won’t bear much of the cost of the clean-up because President Barack Obama yesterday issued a disaster declaration and the federal government will reimburse the county for expenses, Kelly said. Assistance from towns will also help the county, he said.

“We have to do what we have to do to address the loss of life and damage to property, and to try to, as quickly as we can, get life back to normal,” Kelly said.

Encompassing Birmingham, Alabama’s biggest city, the county has sought since 2008 to avoid the biggest-ever U.S. municipal bankruptcy after interest costs on more than $3 billion of sewer debt soared during the financial crisis. The financing process was riddled with corruption.

Last month the state Supreme Court struck down a wage and business-license tax enacted in 2009, amplifying the county’s fiscal crisis. The ruling slashed general-fund revenue by about 25 percent, or $73 million a year. The county may have to cut 1,200 of its 3,500 employees to cope with the drop.

‘Major Catastrophic Event’

The governors of Mississippi, Virginia and Tennessee declared emergencies while in Alabama, Bentley activated units of the National Guard to deal with damage in 18 counties, according to state websites.

In the Birmingham neighborhood of Pratt City, about five miles northwest of downtown, processions of people carrying belongings from wrecked apartments and houses moved past piles of rubble, roofless buildings and fallen trees.

Barbara Wells, a trucking company recruiter, said the storm blew off the back of her house.

“I actually saw the walls go in and I told my daughter, I said, ‘Come out of your room, now,’” Wells said. “I told her to hold onto me and don’t let go. And by that time, it blew the door that was fastened open and you could see the light. It took the roof off.”

In God’s Hands

“It sounded like an airplane that was right above us,” Wells’s daughter said.

Asked what she was going to do now, Wells said, “It’s all in God’s hands.”

A tornado entered the western part of Jefferson County after passing through Tuscaloosa, the home of the University of Alabama’s main campus. Most of the fatalities in Jefferson County occurred in Pleasant Grove, a lower-income community, Kelly said. The tornado then moved through Pratt City, which was once a coal-mining community.

At the 100-unit Southampton Apartments complex, shards of wood and glass, twisted ribbons of corrugated metal, clothing, dolls and parked cars with blown-out windows sat in front of two-story apartments that the storm had remodeled to one story. Atop one stack of debris lay a wet T-shirt bearing the words, “Jesus can lift you up.”

Governor Bentley, at a news conference this afternoon in Tuscaloosa, where he’s from, said tornadoes killed 194 across the state.

Path of Destruction

The Tuscaloosa tornado left a 6-mile-long, half-mile-wide path in the city, where more than 30 died and 600 were injured.

“It is hard for me, having Tuscaloosa as my hometown,” Bentley said. “It makes it hard being governor, to see people’s lives turned upside down.”

Bentley was joined at the press conference by U.S. Senators Richard Shelby and Jeff Sessions and U.S. Representative Spencer Bachus.

Public-works crews have started getting streets cleared and debris moved, Kelly said.

“This isn’t going to be done quickly,” said Joe Knight, a commissioner who oversees the emergency management agency.

The county is seeking U.S. aid today, Knight said, adding he didn’t know how much the Federal Emergency Management Agency will reimburse the county for disaster recovery costs.

Often the federal government pays 75 percent of such expenses, with the state picking up 10 percent and the county 15 percent, he said.

The county’s finances aren’t the first thing on his mind.

“Our priority is taking care of people.”

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