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Made homeless by tornado, Alabama victims ponder their next moves

In a Birmingham shelter, families are in limbo, awaiting help from FEMA after the devastating tornado outbreak made them refugees. A mother says, 'I just want to cry, because I have no idea where home is anymore.'

April 30, 2011|By Esmeralda Bermudez, Los Angeles Times
  • Cerita Boyd sits in an emergency shelter set up at Boutwell Auditorium in downtown Birmingham, Ala. Her home in Pratt City, northwest of Birmingham, was destroyed by a tornado.
Cerita Boyd sits in an emergency shelter set up at Boutwell Auditorium in… (Michelle Campbell / The…)

Reporting from Birmingham, Ala. — Kendra Coleman, her husband and three sons awoke Saturday morning in the hope that they would not have to spend another night in the cold, cavernous building where they had slept on cots since a tornado hit on Wednesday.

While families strolled casually through an art fair outside the Boutwell Auditorium in downtown Birmingham, inside the building, those like the Coleman family struggled to plan their future.

Coleman, a 27-year-old hospital housekeeper, said she called the Federal Emergency Management Agency on Friday, but she was told to wait 10 to 14 days.

Photo gallery: Tornadoes cut path of devastation

"They said, 'We'll call you and set up and appointment.'" she said. "I said, 'That's fine, but what am I supposed to do until then?' I need beds. I need water."

The family's three-bedroom apartment collapsed in Pratt City, forcing them to walk away with just their coats and Coleman's purse. They have tried to return to the neighborhood to collect a few of their belongings -- chairs, couches, tables -- but police would not allow cars inside while power lines were being repaired.

At the shelter, Coleman said they were not permitted to shower and her boys, ages 11, 7, and 4, were beginning to tire.

"They tell me 'Momma, I wanna go home,' and I just want to cry," she said. "Because I have no idea where home is anymore."

Since Wednesday, hundreds have streamed through the downtown shelter, from Pratt City, Pleasant Grove and other hard-hit neighborhoods in Jefferson County. The first night the building was packed with 150 people.

Tornado photos

Scenes from the devastated South

By Saturday morning, about 50 remained. They are the ones who haven't been able to find a spare room or couch with a relative or afford a hotel room -- most of which are booked across the region. The entrance to the auditorium was abuzz with volunteers as they prepared meals and collected donations -- diapers, crackers, children's shoes.

Those in search of housing were referred to FEMA.

Ruthie Cornish, 68, and her daughter, Sherry, planned to call the agency that afternoon.

"We don't want to end up homeless," she said while keeping an eye on her four grandchildren, ages 6, 8, 9 and 15 months.

Their kitchen caved in at their apartment in Center Point, just east of downtown Birmingham. The first night, they said they huddled on the floor with blankets, determined to ride out the coming nights at home.

But the rain and the cold swept in through the giant gap in the kitchen and they were forced to find a shelter. Their food in the fridge spoiled.

"All we want is a roof over our heads," Cornish said.

Toward the back of the auditorium, Terry Tindall, 49, and his wife, Victoria Jennings, 34, were a rarity. The couple from Jackson, Miss., were likely the only non-Alabamians in the room.

After the tornado, they hitchhiked their way to Birmingham, where they felt they would be safer in a shelter. Their mobile home was in pieces, their car 10 feet in the air, wrapped around a tree like a soda can.

Victoria packed a bag of clothes, which along the way got drenched and became useless.

A local organization helped them buy a ticket to Chattanooga, Tenn., where Tindall planned to stay a few weeks with a cousin. But first, they planned to call FEMA to get a sense of how long they would be without a home of their own.

"I don't even want to think of that whole process," Tindall said. "We just got to dig our way out."

Photo gallery: Tornadoes cut path of devastation

esmeralda.bermudez@latimes.com

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