TUSCALOOSA — Survivors of the deadliest tornado outbreak since the Great Depression struggled to begin rebuilding their lives in the wind-wrecked landscape Friday, enduring blackouts and waiting in long lines for gas as their remaining possessions lay hidden in the rubble. President Barack Obama arrived in devastated Alabama to console victims whose emergency safety net has been so badly frayed, at least one town was begging for body bags.
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 318 across seven states. In one of its first official assessments of the tornadoes’ strength, the National Weather Service gave the worst possible rating to one that raked Mississippi and said it was the strongest to hit the state since 1966.
With the confirmation of more deaths by state officials, Wednesday’s outbreak surpassed a deadly series of tornadoes in 1974 to become the deadliest day for twisters since 332 people died in March 1932. The storm eight decades ago was also in Alabama.
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.”
After witnessing the damage in storm-wracked neighborhoods, Obama promised help and remarked that he’s “never seen devastation like this.” Entire neighborhoods were obliterated in the city of more than 83,000 that’s home to the University of Alabama.
“When we’re confronted by the awesome power of nature and reminded that all we have is each other,” said the president after spending time talking to the state’s governor and Tuscaloosa’s mayor.
The storms destroyed the city’s emergency management center, so the University of Alabama’s Bryant-Denny Stadium was turned into a makeshift one. Though there wasn’t significant damage to campus, finals were canceled and commencement was postponed.
The situation was dire about 90 miles to the north in the demolished town of Hackleburg, Ala., where officials were keeping the dead in a refrigerated truck amid a body bag shortage. At least 27 were killed there, and the search for missing people continues.
The only grocery store, the fire and police departments and the school are destroyed. There’s no power, communications, water or other services. Fire Chief Steve Hood said flashlights for the town’s 1,500 residents are needed because he doesn’t want them to use candles that could start fires.
“We don’t have water to put out any fires,” he said.
About three hours to the west, parts of Rainsville were also flattened. At Rainsville Funeral Home, Lisa Chandler and her husband have been working 6 a.m. to midnight to arrange services and prepare bodies.
The work is tough because they know most of the victims. But the couple keeps at it – they have five visitations planned for Friday night.
“How am I handling it?” Lisa Chandler said. “I cry a little and I pray a lot.”
Just outside of town, residents picked through their scattered belongings on a road, with people in cars stopping to offer bread, water and crackers. An AM radio station transmitted offers of help. One store was giving away air mattresses. An Italian restaurant was serving free hot meals. A glass shop was offering to replace shattered windows for free.
Firefighter Jamie Armstrong blinked back tears as he recalled finding a 5-year-old girl lifeless in a field near Rainsville, far from any house. Her brother was alive, but Armstrong wasn’t sure if he was going to make it.
Despite the devastation, he said the storm had strengthened his belief in God.
“The truth is, God could take any one of us right now. But he spared me and you,” he said.
In other areas, those who sheltered away from home trickled back to reclaim their belongings, ducking police roadblocks, fallen limbs and power lines. Survivors struggled with no electricity and little help from stretched-thin law enforcement.
As many as a million homes and businesses in Alabama were without power, and Alabama Gov. 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.
Alabama emergency management officials said Friday that the state had 228 confirmed deaths. There were 33 deaths in Mississippi, 34 in Tennessee, 15 in Georgia, five in Virginia, two in Louisiana and one in Kentucky. Hundreds if not thousands of people were injured – 900 in Tuscaloosa alone.
Concord, a small town outside Birmingham, was devastated. Derrick Keef undertook a heartbreaking scavenger hunt for his most priceless possessions strewn across his heavily damaged neighborhood.
“I’ve been going from lot to lot finding stuff,” he said as he rifled through debris in search of a family photo album. “It’s like CSI.”
In many places, drivers searched for the rare gas station that wasn’t shuttered by power outages. In rural northeast Alabama’s Crossville, 25 to 30 vehicles lined up at the Fuel-Z Friday morning. 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.
“We’ve been sleeping here all night. Well, I wouldn’t call it sleeping, crammed in the back of an SUV,” she said.
Some Alabama newspapers were pooling resources. The Cullman Times and The News-Courier in nearby Athens printed their Thursday and Friday editions at the TimesDaily in Florence, which was also serving as the temporary newsroom for another paper – The Decatur Daily. Cullman Times publisher Bill Morgan said a generator was being trucked to restore power to his newspaper’s presses.
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.
The National Weather Service said the tornado that hit Smithville was a devastating EF-5 storm, with top winds of 205 mph. Meteorologist Jim LaDue said he expects “many more” of Wednesday’s tornadoes to receive the worst rating in the tornado measurement system.
Tornadoes struck with unexpected speed in several states, and the difference between life and death was hard to fathom. Four people died in Bledsoe County, Tenn., but Mayor Bobby Collier also had good news to report after a twister swept through.
“There was a modular home that was actually picked up and thrown across the road,” Collier said. “The family was in it. It was totally destroyed.”
And the family?
“They were OK.”