By Verna Gates
TUSCALOOSA, Ala (Reuters) - Six months after a deadly twister ravaged Tuscaloosa, Alabama, thousands of homes are being rebuilt, dozens of businesses have reopened and nearly all the debris is cleared away.
Yet a celebratory siren at a recent high school football game nearly brought Mayor Walt Maddox to tears.
"It sounded like tornado sirens, and I realized I had to keep it together," he told Reuters.
Reminders of the tornadoes that ripped through 450 miles of Alabama on April 27 linger across the state, as families continue to grieve for the 248 lives lost and piece back together homes and routines splintered by the storms.
The twisters came during a brutal stretch of weather last spring. A series of tornadoes battered the Southeast in April, followed by a powerful tornado on May 22 in Joplin, Missouri, that killed 162 people.
The knocking of hammers is a familiar sound these days in hard-hit Tuscaloosa, where state officials say 49 people died.
In the city's devastated Alberta area, colorful notices hanging on houses indicate whether building has been completed, permits have been issued or the site is condemned.
New homes stand next to boarded up houses and, looking down from a hilltop, a sea of blue tarps remains.
Just last week, Deborah Thomas and her family moved into their new brick house, which features a safe room for protection against future storms.
"I am happy. I got more than I had and better than I had. It is like walking in a dream," said 49-year-old Thomas, a hospital secretary who saw everything but a single corner of her bedroom get blown away in April.
In nearby Fosters, a team of volunteers from Kentucky, Michigan and Chicago hammered shingles on Christian Johnson's roof. The 29-year-old fast food restaurant cashier, whose husband is unemployed, welcomed the help from the United Methodist Committee on Relief to cover $15,000 in repairs needed to fix the home built by her father.
The church coordinator, Rock Stone, said they have so far repaired more than 30 homes for people who were either uninsured or under-insured.
"It's amazing how people will pull together to help you. To see the smiles on my kids' faces is amazing," said Johnson, a mother of two.
'BETTER THAN BEFORE'
Maddox said 98 percent of the debris in Tuscaloosa has been cleared, amounting to 1.24 million cubic yards of trash. After seeing deaths there occur in older homes, the city is insisting on better building standards as new structures go up.
"We are doing everything we know to build back the city better than before," he said.
Statewide, every town hit by the tornadoes has formed long-term community recovery committees. The effort is guided by the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs, which is helping leaders devise smart ways to rebuild their infrastructure, amenities and business corridors.
"We have a once-in-a-lifetime chance to rebuild ourselves. We are looking at ways to change destruction into something positive," said Jim Byard Jr., the department's director.
Nearly 88,000 Alabamians have registered with FEMA for assistance, according to state emergency management officials. Across Alabama, $530 million in federal funds have poured in to help survivors, businesses and communities.
In Birmingham, Susan Hammack and her husband recently moved back into their home, but many of their neighbors have not yet been able to return.
Hammack has scaled back her massage therapy practice, citing "tornado burnout" after working every weekend to clean up fallen trees and water damage on her property.
"It is still depressing to come home to the neighborhood and see what has happened to our once beautiful, oak-tree shaded neighborhood," said Hammack, 63.
In tiny Cordova, where four people died and the historic downtown was torn apart, 18-year-old Kelsie Elizabeth Owens said it was hard to cope with the reality that the town she grew up in won't ever look like it did before the twisters.
But she has a newfound perspective in the storm's wake.
"Something good will come out of this tragedy. It's showed me that my home isn't windows and doors and a bed," she said. "My home is in heaven with God, a place that can't be blown away."
(Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Jerry Norton)