Tornado survivors pick up pieces as Obama visits

President Barack Obama stands with Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley, left, Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., and others, as they toured tornado damage in Tuscaloosa, Ala., Friday, April 29, 2011. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

April 29, 2011 9:02:36 PM PDT
Gas lines, looting and the discovery of smashed heirlooms sapped survivors' energy Friday around cities shattered by the deadliest tornado outbreak in nearly four decades.

President Barack Obama landed in devastated Alabama to console victims, while authorities worked to overcome damaged infrastructure and even a shortage of body bags in one town.

As Obama stepped off a plane at the airport in hard-hit Tuscaloosa, rescuers and survivors combed the remains of neighborhoods pulverized by Wednesday's outbreak that killed at least 297 across six states.

The president's arrival drew a muted response from Tuscaloosa resident Derek Harris, who was pushing a grocery buggy down a street where virtually every home was heavily damaged. The 47-year-old and his wife hoped to use the cart to salvage a few belongings from his home.

"Hopefully he'll give us some money to start over," Harris said of Obama. "Is FEMA here? The only place I'm hearing anything is at the Red Cross center."

Some were more upbeat about the president's visit, including 21-year-old Turner Woods, who watched Obama's motorcade pass on its way to tour damaged areas. "It's just really special having the president come here," she said. "It will bring more attention to this disaster and help get more help here."

The situation was dire about 90 miles to the north in the demolished town of Hackleburg, Ala., where officials were keeping bodies in a refrigerated truck amid a body bag shortage. Officials said at least 27 are dead there, and searches for the missing continue. Town officials say they need everything from body portable showers, to tents and flashlights.

The only grocery store, the fire and police departments and the school are destroyed. There's no power, communications, water or other services.

People have looted a demolished Wrangler plant, and authorities locked up drugs from a destroyed pharmacy in a bank vault, said Stanley Webb, chief agent in the county's drug task force.

"If people steal, we are not playing around. They will go to jail," he said.

Elsewhere, drivers hunted for fuel for cars and generators after many gas stations were shuttered by widespread power outages.

In rural northeast Alabama, a line of 25 to 30 cars formed early Friday at the Fuel-Z in Crossville in hopes its generator would be fixed soon. The station had been the only one open for many miles until a generator part failed Thursday night.

An employee said the repair might take until Saturday, but Natasha Brazil and her boyfriend weren't going anywhere in their Dodge Durango SUV. She lives about 10 miles away but said she only has enough gas for another mile or two after getting to the station around 10 p.m. the night before, too late to fuel up before the generator broke down.

"We've been sleeping here all night. Well, I wouldn't call it sleeping, crammed in the back of an SUV," she said. She's tried calling family and friends for help, but with the power out since Wednesday, she figures everybody's cell phones are dead.

Those who took shelter as the storms descended trickled back to their homes Thursday, ducking police roadblocks and fallen limbs and power lines to reclaim their belongings.

They struggled with no electricity and little help from stretched-thin law enforcement. And they were frustrated by the near-constant presence of gawkers who drove by in search of a cellphone camera picture - or worse, a trinket to take home.

"It's just devastation. I've never seen this," said Sen. Richard Shelby during a visit to storm-ravaged Tuscaloosa. "This is the worst tornado devastation I've ever seen."

The storms did the brunt of their damage in Alabama. More than two-thirds of the victims lived there, and large cities bore the scars of half-mile-wide twisters that rumbled through. The high death toll seems surprising in the era of Doppler radar and precise satellite forecasts. But the storms were just too wide and too powerful to avoid a horrifying body count.

As many as a million homes and businesses there were without power, and Bentley said 2,000 National Guard troops had been activated to help. The governors of Mississippi and Georgia also issued emergency declarations for parts of their states.

The storms seemed to hone in on populated areas by hugging the interstate highways and obliterating neighborhoods and even entire towns from Tuscaloosa to Bristol, Va.

Concord, a small town outside Birmingham, was so devastated that authorities closed it down to keep out rubberneckers. Randy Guyton's family, which lived in a stately home at the base of a hill in the center of Concord, rushed to the basement garage, piled into a Honda Ridgeline and listened to the roar as the twister devoured the house in seconds. Afterward, they saw outside through the shards of their home and scrambled out.

"The whole house caved in on top of that car," he said. "Other than my boy screaming to the Lord to save us, being in that car is what saved us."

Alabama emergency management officials in a news release early Friday said the state had 210 confirmed deaths. There were 33 deaths in Mississippi, 33 in Tennessee, 15 in Georgia, five in Virginia and one in Kentucky. Hundreds if not thousands of people were injured - 800 in Tuscaloosa alone.

The loss of life is the greatest from an outbreak of U.S. tornadoes since April 1974, when the weather service said 315 people were killed by a storm that swept across 13 Southern and Midwestern states.

Some of the worst damage was in Tuscaloosa, a city of more than 83,000 that is home to the University of Alabama. The storms destroyed the city's emergency management center, so the school's Bryant-Denny Stadium was turned into a makeshift one. School officials said two students were killed, though they did not say how they died. Finals were canceled and commencement was postponed.

Shaylyndrea Jones, 22, had expected to graduate from the University of Alabama next weekend with a degree in sports science. Instead, she spent Thursday moving out of her ruined apartment, where she rode out the storm huddled in a hallway. But graduation suddenly isn't so important - she's just thankful she and her roommates survived the night.

"It was the scariest thing I've been through," she said. "We were saying our prayers as it was coming down the street." Police used bullhorns to tell people not to cross the tape to a neighborhood they were searching. On the other side, people were walking over glass, through pools of water, endless piles of debris and smashed cars. The city imposed a 10 p.m. curfew for Thursday and an 8 p.m. limit for Friday.

Search and rescue teams fanned out to dig through the rubble of devastated communities that bore eerie similarities to the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, when town after town lay flattened for nearly 90 miles. Authorities in Concord and elsewhere even painted the same "X" symbols they did in New Orleans to mark which homes they searched and how many survivors were found.

In Phil Campbell, a small town of 1,000 in northwest Alabama where 26 people died, the grocery store, gas stations and medical clinic were destroyed by a tornado that Mayor Jerry Mays estimated was a half-mile wide and traveled some 20 miles.

"We've lost everything. Let's just say it like it is," Mays said. "I'm afraid we might have some suicides because of this."

Officials said at least 13 died in Smithville, Miss., where devastating winds ripped open the police station, post office, city hall and an industrial park with several furniture factories. Pieces of tin were twined high around the legs of a blue water tower, and the Piggly Wiggly grocery store was gutted.

At Smithville Cemetery, even the dead were not spared: Tombstones dating to the 1800s, including some of Civil War soldiers, lay broken on the ground. Brothers Kenny and Paul Long dragged their youngest brother's headstone back to its proper place.

At least eight people were killed in Georgia's Catoosa County, including in Ringgold, where a suspected tornado flattened about a dozen buildings and trapped an unknown number of people.

"It happened so fast I couldn't think at all," said Tom Rose, an Illinois truck driver whose vehicle was blown off the road at I-75 North in Ringgold, near the Tennessee line.


Bluestein reported from Concord, Ala., Nelson from Tuscaloosa, Ala. Associated Press writers Holbrook Mohr in Phil Campbell, Ala.; Jeffrey Collins in Concord, Ala.; Jay Reeves in Tuscaloosa; Phillip Rawls in Montgomery; Vicki Smith in Morgantown, W.Va.; Kristi Eaton in Norman, Okla.; Ray Henry in Ringgold, Ga.; Meg Kinnard in Columbia, S.C.; Michelle Williams in Atlanta; and Bill Poovey in Chattanooga, Tenn., contributed to this report.

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