Ala. family lives amid rubble from April tornado

By Jay Reeves

Associated Press

Published: Saturday, Jan. 7 2012 10:55 a.m. MST

In a Tuesday, Jan. 3, 2012 photo, Geraldine Horton, 53, pauses in tornado-ravaged Graceland Apartments in Tuscaloosa, Ala. Horton's family is living in the lone remaining building at Graceland despite the city moving forward with plans to condemn and demolish the complex, which was mostly destroyed by the tornado that struck on April 27, 2011.

Jay Reeves, Associated Press

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Geraldine Horton steps out of her apartment into a broken world that looks much as it did the day after a killer tornado plowed through town last spring.

Buildings are sliced in two across the street from her home and next door; broken bricks litter her parking lot along with shoes, underwear, kitchen canisters and splintered lumber. A smoke detector beeps somewhere deep within the wreckage, its battery dying more than eight months after the twister.

Horton, her husband Leon and their two teenage sons are one of only two families living in Graceland Apartments, both of whom moved in around New Year's. All but one of the 20 or so buildings in the complex were destroyed by a twister on April 27, and the families are living in the sole structure that survived.

"Man, it's still ugly. It really is," Horton said as she scanned the wreckage. "It's got a sense of sadness to it. But it's all right."

The tornado outbreak killed about 250 people in Alabama, including 52 in Tuscaloosa. The twister missed the University of Alabama campus but damaged or destroyed more than 5,000 businesses and homes in the city, displacing hundreds. While many have returned as rebuilding progresses across much of the area, the Hortons' situation shows that life is far from normal in some neighborhoods where the cleanup has lagged.

The family signed a lease in December not realizing the City Council had voted to condemn the property two days before Christmas.

"I know people think I'm crazy for living down here, but it's not where you live, it's how you live," said Horton, 53. "As long as you live the way God wants you to live, or as close as you can to the way God wants you to live, things are going to turn out right."

It's unclear how long the Hortons, who get by on government disability payments, can remain at the complex that shares a name with Elvis Presley's home in Memphis, Tenn. The couple has lived there on and off throughout 33 years of marriage. They were staying elsewhere at the time of the storm but came back after realizing a single building had survived.

But the city is seizing the land through eminent domain. City leaders have talked of using the property for a new elementary school or a fire station, and workers stopped by last week with word that demolition will begin this week.

"I signed a year lease. I don't know what's going to happen," said Horton. Her family lacks cable TV but has everything else she needs — water, power, sewer service, and a roof over her family's head.

Meredith Lynch, a spokeswoman for the city's incident command, said residents will be allowed to remain temporarily, but it's not clear what will happen as the work progresses. The complex is supposed to be demolished within four months, or by the first anniversary of the tornado, she said.

"We know people are there," said Lynch.

Tuscaloosa businessman Matt Leavell, who identified himself as owner of the property, said there are a lot of rumors going around about what will happen to it.

"I have yet to be contacted as the owner of the property that the area has been condemned," he said in a Facebook message. "To my knowledge we will just continue as normal until we hear differently."

While tornado debris is gone across much of Tuscaloosa and many lots have been swept clean of debris, progress has been slower in the area called Alberta City, where the apartments are located in a part of town populated mainly by retirees, students and low-income residents. There, rubble still lines University Boulevard in some places, and repaired homes stand beside vacant houses awaiting demolition.

Virtually abandoned and littered with storm debris, Graceland is deathly still aside from weeds and tornado debris that waves in a wintry breeze. It's so quiet at night Horton can hear traffic a couple blocks away.

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