Just south of Wellington Road on U.S. 431, the first reminders of the storm’s blow begin to appear — toppled trees, an A-frame home on a hill, gutted and half gone. Farther along, near the county line, acres of cropped trees come into view, their branches gone, their trunks splintered.
Signs of restoration are also visible. New homes stand in place of rubble left in the tornado’s wake. Debris that seemed to pile perpetually along roads in recent months is now gone.
On Wednesday, contractors working for Calhoun County loaded the last pile of debris onto trucks and carried it away to a landfill. It marked the completion of the debris removal process from county and state rights of way and from private property that began in May, just days after the tornado struck.
“They hauled off, there is no telling how much debris,” storm victim Gary Vice said. “They worked out here for about two weeks, solid.”
Vice, a Reads Mill Road resident, lost his home to the tornado on April 27. He said the county contractors almost completely removed debris from around his home and the homes of his neighbors, many of whom are family members.
Over the past four months, the county’s contractors have removed roughly 400,000 cubic yards, according to Lee Helms and Associates, the company that managed the cleanup for the county. To date, the cost to the county has been $500,000, less the fees contractors paid to access the county landfill, which will reduce the county’s cost by about half, according to Lee Helms, who owns the disaster management company.
“It appears the county may only be out $250,000,” Helms said. “That’s really good … about as good as I’ve seen.”
The Federal and state governments will cover the remaining costs. In the first 30 days, the debris removal was paid for completely by the two larger government entities.
After that, the county covered 12.5 percent of the cost for right of way removal, 10 percent of the cost for clearing debris from private property inside a grid established by FEMA, and 100 percent of the cost for removing debris from 78 private properties not included in FEMA’s grid for private property debris assistance.
The exact cost to the county will not be known until FEMA officials audit debris removal reports from the local, state and federal governments, Helms added. It could be between three and six months before that process begins, he said.
Meanwhile, the county struggles to pay the contractors as they wait on FEMA to issue reimbursement checks for the work, said Calhoun County Administrator Ken Joiner. It’s depleted a $1 million fund it designated to help pay contractors while waiting for reimbursements, and drawn $2 million from the road department and the general fund to make ends meet.
Eventually, the county will receive $5.6 million from FEMA to help pay for the cleanup, but the reimbursements are slower in coming than expected.
“We’re scraping the bottom of the pot right now,” Joiner said. “We’ve got to get this money in.”
So far FEMA has been reimbursed for $1.2 million, has designated $3.1 million to the county and has yet to be billed for the project that ended Wednesday, which cost roughly $1.1 million, Helms said.
He said the bulk of that money, the $3.1 million, has not been issued to the county, though documentation has been filed and the funds have been promised.
“This is the slowest disaster I’ve ever worked in my entire career,” said Helms, a former state EMA director, referring to the interval between the catastrophic event and payment for recovery efforts.
And while count officials may wait for federal funding for months more, for county residents the wait is over. No more crewmen will show up to remove the remnants of debris with labor paid for by government money.
The warped trees that remain on hillsides, or toppled over on private property away from homes, were not eligible for government-assisted removal. They are still there, serving as reminders of the storm.
Vice can see them from the front windows of his new mobile home, their dead branches and massive trunks lying along the railroad across the street, just behind his brother’s new temporary residence — another mobile home.
“It’s so ugly for about half a mile. If it wasn’t for that, the storm wouldn’t be so evident,” Vice said. “We still have so much to clean up out here and I’m not optimistic it’s going to happen.”
Star staff writer Laura Johnson: 256-235-3544.