Wetumpka’s rebuild will be carefully considered; ‘We’re not in a hurry,’ mayor says

Jimmy Wigfield / The Herald

Wetumpka Mayor Jerry Willis looks over the police station that was destroyed by January’s tornado.

Wetumpka Mayor Jerry Willis said the city is not going to rush its recovery plans in the aftermath of the Jan. 19 tornado but he observed the whirlwind may have cleared away old thinking and installed the underpinnings of a new era for the community.

“We’re not pushing,” Willis said. “We’re not in a hurry. The opportunities are here and we’ve got to be smart enough to take advantage of it and make Wetumpka all it can be. I was told at the outset by other mayors who had been involved in things like this, ‘You’ll be dealing with this for two or three years and you won’t put it back overnight.’ There were a lot of sleepless nights. Some nights I didn’t sleep at all, lying there thinking, ‘How can I help?’ You go a day at a time.”

Some changes will be definite — a new police station, likely in an existing building in a more centralized location, along with a rejuvenated senior center. Also possible is improved traffic flow around the Bibb Graves Bridge and new mixed-use developments.

The EF2 tornado with estimated maximum winds of 135 mph damaged 116 homes in neighborhoods primarily on the west side of the Coosa River and 15 to 20 businesses in the Wetumpka Industrial Park, according to Elmore County Emergency Management Agency director Keith Barnett. No one was killed or seriously injured.

Despite the damage, Willis said Wetumpka did not meet the $7.1 million threshold of uninsured damages to qualify for federal disaster relief money, which will make the recovery more difficult. But Willis said he’d rather not get the funds than endure the alternative.

“To have met the guideline, that would probably be classified as an EF3 tornado and we would have had more destruction and possibly loss of life,” he said. “To get through that with no serious injuries or deaths, we’re blessed to be where we are. … Without a lot of help from people from Wetumpka and outside of Wetumpka making donations to the tornado relief fund, we wouldn’t have gotten any help at all.”

Willis said the city had insured damages of $3 million to $3.5 million — including police cars, the police building, the senior center and the majority of the contents of those buildings.

“We had damage not covered by insurance and we’ve got to find a way to handle it — sidewalks, landscaping, other things of that nature,” he said. “It’s going to take some time to figure out how to get back and how to redevelop things.”

Willis said he wants to provide residents ample opportunity to influence the appearance of the post-tornado Wetumpka.

“We will have numerous meetings over the next few years where people can come together and have a say in how they want Wetumpka put back,” he said. “Individuals will make the decision whether they will rebuild or relocate. I think a lot of them want to stay and we want them to make their decisions for what best suits their needs.

“The discussions will be interesting. We’re an old city. You’ve got to look at some of the losses we had outside of churches and homes. That’s what was needed in Wetumpka at that time. The police building was an old hospital put there because that’s where people lived, on the west side of the river. But is that what Wetumpka needs now? Nowadays it’s convenience. There will be decisions made on meeting the needs of our citizens today.”

Willis senses the city now has a chance to ease traffic snarls on each end of the Bibb Graves Bridge, especially the west side.

“We’ve asked engineers from the state to do a study so people won’t have to sit in a line of traffic for 15 to 20 minutes in the morning and afternoon,” he said.

Willis said the old police station, a former hospital on the west bank of the Coosa River, was scheduled to be torn down over the weekend and crews were still salvaging equipment from it Thursday.

“That’s going to be quite a job,” Willis said. “We’ve got to cap off everything there, gas and water. There’s a storm drain running under the building and we’ve got to be careful with that. We’re down to picking the bones and getting out all we can possibly get out of there. There are some things that can be recycled and hopefully we’ll earn a few dollars off that. We’re still moving air-conditioning units, commodes, lavatories and handicap bars that can be reused.”

The search for salvageable equipment will extend to the river as well.

“We’re waiting for the river itself to get down to a low enough point where we can evaluate the low spots and see if there is any debris in there we don’t know of,” Willis said. “I think there is probably debris in the water.”

The police department currently occupies the upper floors of the city’s administration building and will likely move to an existing building which Willis prefers to be more compact and located where it can more easily serve both sides of the river.

“I’d like to be able to split the difference between the east side and the west side,” he said. “We’re going to be open to serving both sides equally. We don’t want it to be in a congested area; we want the choice of going in several different directions if we’re responding from the police station.

“We had 20,000 square feet in the old building, which was probably too much. Maybe 10,000 to 15,000 square feet would be a reasonable amount of space if it’s laid out correctly.”

The senior center, which was near the police station and also destroyed by the tornado, has temporarily moved to the Cedarwood Community Church off U.S. Highway 231 and Willis said the city is trying to make it more handicap accessible.

“They’re actually growing the program where they are,” Willis said. “They’re doing a great job in the space the church is allowing them to utilize. It’s a blessing the church opened up their doors.”

Willis said the disaster girded his opinion of the community and city employees, especially the first responders.

“A lot has happened in two months, things we learned about the city and about ourselves,” he said. “We have seen people coming together, working together and helping each other through a very difficult time. The damage that was suffered by citizens who lost their homes and property to the storm’s destruction have been forced to make adjustments in their lives, looking at what they can do to put things back together and prepare for the future.

“To see how our employees — public works, fire, police — responded has been awesome. To see the spirit of our community and employees is quite unusual. It’s good for you to see it and realize what type of community you live in.”

Willis said he also now appreciates the value of good neighbors.

“When I saw all those other mayors showing up here with their crews it was a great feeling that we’re not going to have to do this by ourselves,” he said. “We never dreamed we’d have to deal with this. When there is a storm warning now, you pay attention. I know if someone else has a problem, we’re going to be there to help them.”

Willis said he senses most people affected by the tornado will stay in Wetumpka and rebuild, including those with space in the industrial park.

“The industrial park was heavily damaged but I don’t know of anyone who is leaving,” Willis said.

While Willis said the city isn’t going to make premature decisions about future changes, it will aggressively evaluate all the options.

“Where do we go from here?” he asked rhetorically. “We reflect on what we had and we’ve got to take advantage to plan now for our future. We will get there.”