Rebuilding A Small Town After Double Disaster

Cordova, Ala., got hit not by one but two tornadoes on the same day in 2011. The twisters destroyed much of the town, and in the past two years, people living there have struggled with how best to rebuild what was a dying town.

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After any hurricane or tornado, rebuilding begins, and sometimes these events can give communities a chance to re-imagine themselves. That's what's happening now in Cordova, Alabama after parts of that town were turned into rubble by a pair of tornadoes that struck two years ago. As reporter Ashley Cleek discovered, not everyone is embracing change.

ASHLEY CLEEK, BYLINE: Cordova's story is like a lot of small towns. In the 1950s, the population boomed to more than 3,000. But as the coal mines and paper mill closed, residents left. By 2010, the population dropped to 2,000. And since the tornado, it's fallen even more. Cordova seems stuck, even according to the mayor, Drew Gilbert.

DREW GILBERT: People come into town and they see a small community that got devastated by two tornadoes, but I am here to tell you, we were a small community that was in an economic decline for 60 years, and then the cherry on top of that was two tornadoes.

CLEEK: Gilbert's 26 and a native Cordovan. And he and the city council are working to breathe new life into a town that post-tornado could have withered away.

STEVE OSTASESKI: The tornado came over that hill and through town. So now, to build back, I've got lots of opportunities.

CLEEK: That's Steve Ostaseski, Cordova's long-term Community Recovery Manager. He drives through the town pointing out the tornado damage that remains. Down in the valley, there are no trees. Main Street is flanked by skeletal plots. The downtown is empty.

OSTASESKI: We can bring back the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker. They can all be downtown. The affordable housing we're going to build downtown. That's getting people living downtown and getting some energy going. Then that'll start bringing us back.

CLEEK: Ostaseski used to work as an architect in Birmingham, and is describing something called new urbanism: downtowns with sidewalks, parks and housing. The goal is to attract a new population - retirees, Ostaseski's age, who want to leave crowded cities, and young people, like the mayor. Ostaseski knows building codes. Gilbert knows Cordova. During his childhood, the mayor watched his town slowly die.

GILBERT: We're very conservative, very Southern, everything stereotypical you can say about an Alabamian, we are that, and we finally embraced progressive ideas and rebuilding. And it's awesome to watch that turnaround.

CLEEK: And he has many ideas. He bought an outdoor projector to screen movies downtown. He wants to start an urban garden. Bring in food trucks. But some people worry these new ideas don't fit their small towns.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: My (unintelligible).

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: My green (unintelligible).

CLEEK: Jeff and Von's Cafe is one of the two places to eat in Cordova. Edward Otis Pinegar is almost 80 and has seen Cordova from boom to dust. He wants his town to bounce back. But it should be industry first, he says, before urban planning.

EDWARD OTIS PINEGAR: Nobody's made an attempt to build nothing, you can't build a Butler building in this town, you have to build it out of concrete or bricks or something. Who's going to build a building? I know they want to beautify the town, but we need a town and then start beautifying.

CLEEK: Even with complaints from some longtime residents, Gilbert has to convince people his own age to move here.

(LAUGHTER)

CLEEK: At his wedding this summer, a group of his friends stood drinking a homebrewed beer flavored with Cordova blackberries. When I ask them if they would move to Cordova, there's silence and nervous laughter. They're wary of small towns, but willing to think about it. And there's reason for optimism. Cordova recently received almost $4 million to rebuild the police station, city hall and library.

GILBERT: It's going to be the newest old city and that's something nobody has. Nobody has a brand new old city.

CLEEK: Two years after a pair of tornadoes ripped up most of Cordova, Alabama, the city looks for hope wherever it can. A sketch of the soon-to-be-built Piggly Wiggly grocery store drew rave reviews. For NPR News, I'm Ashley Cleek.

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