JACKSONVILLE —Vickie Fowler is ready to be reunited with her stuff.
Six months ago, she was comfortable in her house on Seventh Street in Jacksonville. A hospice worker, Fowler at 62 was a month away from retirement. Her husband Jeff, 69, was already retired and was a regular at nearby Huddle House. Life was so cozy, even James Spann couldn’t keep the Fowlers up late.
“Ordinarily, if there’s a tornado watch, we just go to bed and say, ‘if it happens, it happens,’” she said. Had the tornado come an hour later, she said, they’d have missed the warning.
About 8:30 p.m. on March 19, an EF-3 tornado roared across Jacksonville. The Fowlers took shelter in a hallway. A tree crashed through their living room, landing on her piano. Another into the hallway, bruising Jeff’s arm. A car alarm wailed in the driveway, but when they climbed out of their house, the Fowlers found both of their cars crushed.
The Fowlers now live in a rented house in Glencoe. Retirement is off the table for now. Insurance doesn’t pay for every expense. Vickie expects to buy new fall clothes soon, because she brought only summer clothes from her old house. The rest, along with most of her other possessions, are packed away in storage. When she moves back to Jacksonville, she’ll have to sort through everything.
“They packed the good stuff and the ruined stuff together,” she said. “It’s been that kind of nightmare. There’s no end to the work.”
The Fowlers’ house is among 559 buildings in Jacksonville that were damaged in the storm, by the city’s count. More than 400 storm-damaged homes now sit under new roofs, though residents are learning that roof repairs are just the start — and that full recovery could take a long time.
Some done, some not begun
Six months on, the north side of Jacksonville no longer looks like the proverbial war zone. Now it’s a haphazard world of haves and have-nots.
Here and there, a freshly painted house with a well-manicured lawn. Only the roof, shiny red or gray tin in a neighborhood once covered by shingles, gives a house away as a post-storm fixer-upper.
Near every shiny roof, a ruin. Some caved-in roofs seem rounder now, worn down by gravity and the elements. On Ninth Avenue, vines grow on the front door frame of an unoccupied bungalow. A few blocks away, a damaged house sits under a neat white tarp, as if covered over by the coroner.
It’s still hard to say which houses are truly dead. For months the Fowlers’ house was one that made passing neighbors sigh in pity. Then one day the lot was bare, scraped clean by bulldozers. The wooden frame for a new house went up this month.
“I’ve got enough work to last me another year,” said Lee Patterson, the homebuilder who’s working on the Fowler house.
Another local contractor, Sam Almaroad, said he too expects it will take another year to finish the work in front of him. That’s the timetable for the houses that have to be rebuilt from the ground up: Houses with smaller repairs, he said, could be done by March.
City building inspector Mark Williams doesn’t have an exact count of houses that are completely fixed. In the days immediately after the storm, city officials didn’t keep a tally of the number of inspections they completed, mostly on electrical connections to damaged houses. Simply getting the power on, safely, was more important than tracking numbers.
Since late March, Williams says, the city has completed inspections on repairs of 301 different storm-damaged properties — though only a small fraction of those were final inspections that indicate all the work on a house is done.
The city has also issued 462 new roof-repair permits since the storm — 159 of them in April alone. In September, it’s been down to about one per day.
The Star did its own informal count, driving through the same streets where inspectors in March found 559 damaged buildings. Around 50 houses still sat under tarps or were the site of ongoing construction. Nine stood with caved-in roofs or other major damage, seemingly abandoned.
Some of those homeowners may have to wait.
“There’s a lot to do, and contractors are covered up,” Williams said.
Contractors here haven’t been this busy in at least a decade. In 2007, before the recession, the city saw 48 new houses and 206 apartment units built. Since then, new construction has been slow. Last year, there were eight new houses and not a single new apartment.
Williams says he hears from at least three people a day who’ve had their houses fixed, only to find the repairs don’t meet city code.
“Having a driver’s license doesn’t mean you know how to drive, and having a business license doesn’t mean you know how to build,” he said.
Those city codes tell builders how many smoke detectors a house should have, how far apart the joists should be on a wooden deck, and how wide windows should be to allow people to leave a house during a fire, among other details. Williams calls them “life safety” issues.
State and local officials warned early on that scammers might prey on storm victims. Attorney general Steve Marshall and other local officials held a press conference to remind people to seek out only licensed contractors. Almaroad, the local contractor, said he was all for the press conference, though afterward he recognized a flaw in the plan.
“Nobody had television,” said Almaroad. “Nobody had a telephone. Nobody had power.”
Police Chief Tommy Thompson said the police referred at least two contractors to the attorney general’s office for possible prosecution in the wake of the storm.
Williams said he expects to see another surge of construction in the next few months, as contractors work through their current list of projects and seek out new clients.
Jeanne Jordan is content to wait until her turn comes.
“There just aren’t enough contractors to go around,” she said. “When the storm passed, after I gave God’s thanks for my safety and everyone else’s, I decided that a good virtue to have would be patience.”
Jordan, 67, has lived on Cardinal Lane for 39 years. Before she retired, she was the town clerk.
After work, it was a short drive from City Hall to her home on the north edge of town. Vine-covered trees in a lot across the street hid it from nearby Alabama 21. Tall pines and an aged oak made her yard, like its neighbors, seem dark and green.
Six months later, Jordan still enjoys sitting on her porch, but her home is like a house on the high plains. Tilted stumps of trees lean southward in the yellowing September grass. The hulk of Jacksonville State University’s Merrill Hall, its roof partly collapsed, looms large across the highway. The neighborhood, once segmented by stands of trees, seems shrunken – a close collection of small buildings all along.
The woods are what Jordan misses most.
“We had a sort of pocket forest over here that nestled us from the noise of the highway,” she said. “I miss that. I miss the wildlife. We saw deer, rabbits, racoons, even wild turkeys.”
Jordan has a yellow inspection card on her door, the city’s sign that a house is livable, but still needs significant repair. But just a couple of blocks away is an empty house that still has no roof. Jordan said she’s fine with letting others go first.
She’s still proud of the neighborhood, she said. Proud of the neighbors who shone flashlights in her window minutes after the storm. Proud of the students who bring life to the city.
“I think we learned a lot about the strength that comes from the people who live in this town, and that comes from God,” she said. “We’re still the Gem of the Hills as far as I’m concerned.”
Capitol & statewide reporter Tim Lockette: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.