Survivors reeling from devastation

Volunteers respond as death toll rises and communities begin massive cleanup

BY JOHN PAPE | BALTIMORE | April 28, 2011

"This is, or should I say was, a beautiful city. Looking at it now, it looks like the gates of Hell; its just devastated"

—Jim Thompson, Tuscaloosa area volunteer

At least 250 people have died in a massive tornado outbreak across the South, and officials fear the death toll will continue to rise as recovery efforts continue.

Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia bore the brunt of the funnels spawned by a super cell storm system that covered more than 300 miles. Tornadoes were also reported as far west as Texas and as far north as New York.

Although most of the damage was reported on Wednesday, the Carolinas and other Eastern Seaboard states were still dealing with severe weather Thursday.

Based on the preliminary reports, meteorologists were already comparing the devastation to the legendary 1974 “Super Outbreak” of storms. Preliminary estimates indicate the tornadoes may have packed winds of up to 300 mph, also drawing comparisons to the storm that hit Moore, Okla., in 1999.

More than 140 tornadoes were reported in a 24-hour period, with most of the storms hitting between noon and 9 p.m. Wednesday. As with the death toll, that number was expected to rise as more reports come in.

The National Weather Service announced it was assembling experts from across the nation to conduct storm surveys in the affected states.

At least 83 of the funnels hit Alabama, including such major communities as Birmingham and Tuscaloosa.

Even as dawn was breaking Thursday morning, relief was pouring into hard-hit areas. The Red Cross set up shelters throughout the region and the Salvation Army mobilized feeding, communications and relief resources from locations across much of the South.

Because of the number of shelters opened in various areas, no official count of people sheltered was immediately available. Alabama Red Cross volunteer Jim Thompson said he thought the number of refugees could easily be “in the thousands.”

“God, it’s incredible. There’s absolute devastation here; people have lost everything and they’re walking around like zombies, lucky to be alive,” Thompson said. “I’ve seen tornadoes before, but this is like nothing I could even imagine.”

Thompson, who lives in the Tuscaloosa area, said he “cried like a baby” as he made his way through the community to his volunteer post.

“This is, or should I say was, a beautiful city. Looking at it now, it looks like the gates of Hell; it’s just devastated,” Thompson said. “There are major parts of town and I know this is a pretty overused phrase that look like a war zone; it’s horrible. Homes and businesses are gone, cars are tossed on their roofs and you can see the search teams moving through the rubble looking for bodies. It just breaks my heart.”

In addition to the Red Cross, the Salvation Army was moving massive amounts of relief assistance to stricken areas, according to Major Todd Smith, the Birmingham Area Commander.

“The Alabama-Louisiana-Mississippi Division of The Salvation Army has mobilized 10 feeding units and a communications unit. Another 22 mobile feeding units including catering trucks, mobile kitchens, and a 20,000 meal per day full service field kitchen have been placed on standby,” Smith said. “Units are providing food, beverage and spiritual support to storm victims in Tuscaloosa, Guntersville and Lauderdale County, Ala., as well as Montpelier and Oxford, Miss. Mobile feeding units from the Kentucky-Tennessee Division are serving victims in Chattanooga and Cleveland, Tenn.”

Additional Salvation Army feeding units were also on their way to affected areas throughout Alabama, Mississippi, and Tennessee.

A number of other disaster response organizations are also responding.

Disaster Child Care, a ministry coordinated by Brethren Disaster Ministries, said Thursday it was sending a team of volunteers to Alabama.

Mennonite Disaster Service is sending an Early Response Team based in Indiana to help in Alabama and has sent two other officials to help coordinate its response.

Episcopal Relief & Development said Thursday it is continuing to work with local churches and regional dioceses in the impacted areas.

A video camera on a news tower in Tuscaloosa near the University of Alabama captured the massive funnel moving through the Midtown Village area just blocks from the university, leaving little recognizable in its wake. The storm was so strong large trees were not only snapped off, but had bark completely scoured off the stumps. Fortunately, the funnel just missed the campus of more than 30,000 students.

Tuscaloosa Mayor Walter Maddox said the city’s emergency services were “devastated.” The city opened its Belk Center to house evacuees.

The death toll in Tuscaloosa alone stood at 36 as of early Thursday morning, surpassing the death toll from the landmark storm that hit Xenia, Ohio, in 1974. The funnel was on the ground for a reported 22 minutes as it cut through the city.

Statewide, Alabama emergency management officials put the death toll at 128 “and climbing.”

Gov. Robert Bentley said, “We expect that toll, unfortunately, to rise.”

Bentley also mobilized approximately 1,400 Alabama National Guardsmen to provide emergency assistance to counties impacted by the severe weather. Guardsmen were on the ground early Thursday morning to help with search and rescue operations, logistical coordination of debris removal and provide security assistance to local law enforcement agencies.

Bentley said he activated the Guard primarily to assist local first responders, many of whom had insufficient resources to handle the massive amount of storm devastation and rescue operations.

“I have activated the Alabama National Guard to provide assistance whenever and wherever they are needed to help our local communities that have experienced widespread destruction today,” Bentley said. “These guardsmen are well trained and will take every action necessary to protect lives and property in this emergency.”

Counties that had requested assistance from the Alabama National Guard as of Thursday morning included, Marshall, Tuscaloosa, Limestone, Cullman, Jefferson and Lawrence.

The storm system also hit Alabama’s largest city, Birmingham, where a tornado tore through the Pratt City neighborhood. Mayor William Bell toured the devastation shortly after daybreak.

“There are some houses still standing but they are damaged to the point beyond human habitation,” Bell said.

The mayor had no immediate numbers on persons injured or killed in the city. Rescue teams with search dogs continued to check for additional victims even as Bell walked through the destroyed neighborhood. Workers were being hampered in their search by live electrical wires and gas leaks.

Birmingham’s East Lake area also sustained major damage.

Boutwell Auditorium was opened as an emergency shelter, and city officials said they would also be opening Fair Park Arena as an additional shelter location.

In Pleasant Grove, located between Birmingham and Tuscaloosa, resident Edith Bracewell said her family huddled in the shower stall of their home when the storm hit. The house was destroyed, but the family survived.

“We all just prayed as hard as we could,” Bracewell said. “The good Lord protected us.”

Four people were reported dead in Pleasant Grove.

In addition to the Alabama deaths, 32 fatalities had been reported in Mississippi, 16 in Tennessee, 13 in Georgia, eight in Virginia and one in Kentucky. As in Alabama, those numbers were expected to rise as rescue operations continue.

As of Thursday morning, the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency had received confirmation of not only the 32 storm related deaths, but more than 120 injuries. There were also initial reports of more than 230 homes and 20 businesses damaged in 50 counties across the state and the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians

With rescue operations ongoing, local officials said they expected the death toll in Mississippi to rise.

In Monroe County, where most of the Mississippi deaths were reported, resident Jack Caldwell described the damage in familiar terms.

“It’s like a bomb went off; it’s like there was a war out here,” Caldwell said. “Trees were snapped off like twigs, homes and buildings are just gone; there’s nothing left but piles of trash.”

Caldwell said most residents knew a bad storm was coming but “a lot of these folks just didn’t have anywhere to go.”

“These are poor folks; a lot of them live in trailer houses or plain frame homes. They didn’t have a storm shelter or anyplace really safe to go,” he said. “I’m guessing they just felt like they’d ride it out as best they could. It’s going to take us all a long time to get over this.

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