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Columbus homeowners determined to rebuild after tornado

It’s been seven months since an EF-3 tornado swept through the north side of Columbus damaging or destroying an estimated 300 homes and businesses. Mississippi Emergency Management Agency inspectors ruled 117 of those homes were in an “unlivable” state.

For every new roof that dots the landscape, there are a half-dozen more homes that remain, battered and abandoned.

The debris piles that were once homes have largely disappeared by now, leaving vacant lots.

In seven months, the recovery has been slow.

City of Columbus building inspector Kenneth Weigel said his office has issued 74 building permits and 17 demolition permits in the area since the storm, but many more homes remain virtually untouched, as if the owners are still searching for an answer.

“I get the feeling that most of the people would come back if they could,” said Willie Greenlaw, who has worked as a contractor in the city for 27 years. “I’ve worked on about a dozen houses that were damaged and would probably work on a lot more, but a lot of them didn’t have insurance or not enough insurance. That makes it hard.”

But help is on the way from a couple of different sources.

On Sept. 24, Community Recovery of Lowndes County, a nonprofit made up of local citizens that formed soon after the tornado hit, began work on its first major project.

Three days earlier, the Federal Emergency Management Agency reversed an earlier decision and will now offer funding and other assistance to private property owners. FEMA opened a disaster relief center at East Columbus Gym on Sept. 27 to begin processing applications for assistance.

The events last month have given people like Greg Mixon and Barbara Ann Lowery a sense of renewed hope.

– ‘I had nearly given up’

Since it was founded a month after the tornado, Community Recovery of Lowndes County has approved 48 applications for assistance. Backed by a $250,000 grant from FEMA, which is administered through MEMA, the nonprofit has completed work on nine projects, mostly small-scale repairs.

But in September, it started work on a bigger project, demolishing a home on Seventh Street North to prepare for its first rebuild.

Mennonite Recovery Services will take it from there.

During the week of Nov. 2-9, the Mississippi/Louisiana Mennonite Recovery team, along with 32 Amish/Mennonite volunteers from northern Indiana, will arrive in Columbus, one of the 15 projects Mennonite Recovery Services will work on this fall in the U.S. and Canada. Christle Gehman, public relations director at Mennonite Recovery Services headquarters in Pennsylvania, said the group may return to Columbus the week after Christmas if there are more projects to work on.

During its November week in the city, the group of about 60 Mennonite workers will replace 12 roofs and rebuild one home, Gehman said.

That one home, which will be rebuilt on the site CRLC, belongs to Mixon.

“It’s still kind of hard to believe,” Mixon said. “I didn’t think there was any way this would happen.”

Mixon grew up in the little home on Seventh Avenue, becoming the owner when his mother, Johnnie Harris, bought a home on Bluecutt Road.

“I had lived there, off and on, for more than 40 years,” Mixon said.

Mixon was at home when the tornado hit, crouching in the tub as the storm pounded his home.

“The house was ruined, so I’ve been staying with my mother,” he said. “I wouldn’t have a roof over my head if it wasn’t for her.”

Without homeowners’ insurance, Mixon simply didn’t have the money needed to rebuild.

Through word of mouth, Mixon heard about CRLC and applied for help.

“They came out about a week later for an inspection, to see if the house could be repaired or if it would have to be torn down,” Mixon said. “I was pretty sure it couldn’t be rebuilt — too much water damage.”

After several months of not hearing anything, Mixon was informed his application had been accepted.

He could be in his new home by Thanksgiving.

“I had nearly given up,” he said. “It still seems almost too good to be true.”

– A ‘blessing’

As the weather deteriorated on the Saturday afternoon of Feb. 23, Lowery and her husband, Charles Lowery Jr., decided to leave their home on 14th Street North and seek shelter on Southside.

It proved to be a wise decision.

“When we came back later that night, we just couldn’t believe it,” Barbara Ann said. “The house was just destroyed. It was devastating.”

For a month, the Lowerys stayed in a hotel before finally finding a rental home.

Going from homeowners to renters was a depressing thought.

“It’s really been hard,” she said. “After all this time, we still didn’t know what to do. We had some insurance, but it wasn’t enough to rebuild. What could we do?”

The answer to that question may be on the horizon.

Lowery first heard about FEMA’s decision to provide assistance on Sept. 25. By the next afternoon, she had already registered with FEMA and went to the disaster recovery center on Sept. 28 to begin her application.

“Nothing is guaranteed, I know,” she said. “We love our house and our neighborhood and want to rebuild. We just didn’t see how. Now, it feels like that might happen, after all.

“That would be a blessing,” she added.

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Information from: The Commercial Dispatch, http://www.cdispatch.com

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