TUSCALOOSA, Ala. – Lunchtime approaches, and a tornado survivor tries to sleep on one of dozens of cots that fill a converted gymnasium as others mill around. A few yards away, a man irons a pair of pants atop a folding table. The portable showers are outside in the parking lot.
It's been a month since tornadoes bulldozed wide swaths of the South, killing more than 300 people in seven states, yet nearly 100 Alabama survivors are still living in public shelters where the nights are fitful and the days muggy and boring. It could be a preview of what's in store for some people in tornado-ravaged Joplin, Mo., after a twister killed at least 125 people there and leveled entire neighborhoods.
Nowhere in the Southern tornado zone is the lingering shelter problem worse than in Tuscaloosa. The home city of the University of Alabama took the biggest hit in the April 27 storms, losing 41 people. More than 5,000 homes were damaged or destroyed in the city.
With some people struggling to navigate government aid operations and others left without a bed because the twister socked a homeless shelter in the city, some say they have no alternative but to camp out in the gym at a community center, located in a public park a few miles from some of the worst destruction in the state.
Standing in the shade outside the Belk Activity Center on Tuesday, Antonio Meeks said he sought help from the Federal Emergency Management Agency but was denied. He'd been staying with his sister before a twister leveled her place, and he now has no records of income, an address or identification.
"They want all this proof, and I don't have anything," he said.
Mayor Walt Maddox said the shelter could be open for weeks.
"There's no easy path out of this situation," he said.
Frank Lambert said he has been stuck in the shelter for weeks because he lacked bus fare out of town and wasn't interested in aid from FEMA, which he hasn't trusted since Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Lambert said the Alabama storm swept away his home, three vintage motorcycles, an album collection, medals and ribbons from Vietnam, and nearly everything else he owned.
"Everything I have is in two suitcases," said Lambert, 60. "There are people here who if they had somewhere else to go they wouldn't be here."
Only 300 or so people were in shelters three days after the twisters hit on April 27, a statistic that state officials cited to praise the resilience and generosity of people in Alabama. Many residents provided homes for friends and relatives in the aftermath, and still others took in complete strangers they found staggering through the wreckage.
But some of those who went to shelters set up by the American Red Cross, churches or other organizations are still there. Officials said 89 people remain at the gym shelter in Tuscaloosa, and four are still living at a church in a hard-hit section of Birmingham, about 50 miles to the northeast.
Red Cross spokesman Brian Scoles said the Birmingham shelter will close soon because everyone there has somewhere else to stay. He said the Tuscaloosa shelter will remain open partly because of major storm damage to a Salvation Army shelter that housed homeless people from west Alabama.
"It is unusually long for a Red Cross shelter (to operated), but we're not going to put those people out on the street," Scoles said.
The Red Cross said that as of Wednesday, more than 280 people remained in eight shelters that opened in western Mississippi and Tennessee as floodwaters from the Mississippi River inundated the region. There wasn't any indication that tornado survivors also were living there, but the agency said it couldn't rule out the possibility that people fleeing the tornado-ravaged areas also were in the shelters.
In Tuscaloosa, Lambert has had all he can take of shelter life. Bus fare finally in hand because of the kindness of a church donor, he is going to Guntersville, where he intends to stay with an aunt and uncle in a plantation-style home.
"You've still got players in here, people playing the system, complaining about everything," he said.
A few miles away, Flora and Michael Thomas are living in their home despite losing power, part of the roof and some windows because, they said, FEMA denied them help for temporary housing.
For all the damage to their neighborhood and the three deaths that occurred just down the street, they prefer their flawed house to a shelter.
"I can adapt," said Thomas, sitting by the open front door on a hot day. "There ain't nothing like your own space."