The mix of privately and publicly owned buildings with shared walls and varying amounts of damage proved confusing.
"You'd think they've encountered that before," Gilbert said. "But it's been a problem."
Town leaders didn't anticipate historical considerations being the main roadblock to demolition because the damaged buildings weren't on state or national historic registers, but FEMA started asking for photos and reports documenting the buildings' past and architecture, Harbison said.
After two rounds of requests and a conference call, FEMA finally sent its own photographer to document what's left of the city on Oct. 29, he said.
"They're saying they should be finished with the review by Jan. 4," said Harbison. That means no decision will be made on whether to fund the demolition will be made for at least two more months, he said, and the two-year anniversary of the tornadoes could pass with the fractured buildings still looming over Cordova.
It's hard to come or go from the town without driving past the decimated area, and the mayor said the sight is a mental barrier to moving the city forward. Three fires have burned in the damaged area since the tornadoes — one accidental, two suspected arsons, including one in which two people were charged — and the blazes further weakened structures blasted by the twisters.
Gilbert said the rickety buildings stand in an area that could become a home for new businesses now that a new four-lane highway linking Birmingham and Memphis, Tenn., runs just a few miles from the city, but that can't happen until the old ones are demolished. The struggling city can't afford the estimated $933,000 cost of demolishing the structures, he said, so it's counting on FEMA to fill the gap.