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President signs disaster declaration

FEMA teams spread out across southern states to assess full-extent of damage

TUSCALOOSA, Ala.(UPI) | May 1, 2011

Federal emergency response teams Saturday were in southern states devastated by one of the worst outbreaks of tornadoes in U.S. history.

To set in motion federal aid to help the states recover from the disaster that left at least 339 people dead and caused billions of dollars in damage, President Barack Obama signed major disaster declarations for Mississippi and Georgia Friday night. A similar declaration was issued for Alabama earlier.

The declarations make federal assistance available to people who suffered personal property damages or losses, and for public infrastructure, such as schools, fire stations and libraries.

CNN reported the death toll included 250 in Alabama, 34 in Tennessee, 34 in Mississippi, 15 in Georgia, five in Virginia and one in Arkansas.

Gov. Robert Bentley, who said Sunday would be a day of prayer in Alabama, said more than 1,700 people had been hurt in his state alone.

Obama, Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Craig Fugate toured some of the hard-hit areas Friday. Fugate, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Small Business Administration Administrator Karen Mills are to do additional damage surveys with state and local officials in Alabama and Mississippi Sunday.

"Our top priority is to support the states and communities affected by this as recovery efforts are under way," Fugate said in a release issued by the White House. "We will continue to work with our federal, state, local and private sector partners -- as well as the American public -- to support the affected families, neighborhoods and communities as they work to rebuild and recover, for as long as it takes."

The University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa has canceled the rest of the school year because of the tornado that killed three students, officials said.

The campus was spared a direct hit, but the 30,000 students and 5,000 faculty members are deeply affected by the tragedy that killed three university students and left dozens of school employees missing, The New York Times reported Saturday.

"It's impossible for something to affect Tuscaloosa without affecting the university," said Kelsey Stein, 21, a Spanish and journalism major who has been writing about the storm for the student newspaper, The Crimson White. "It didn't cause any structural damage, but it made up for that in emotional impact."

In the Jefferson County community of McDonald Chapel, northeast of Pleasant Grove, one person died and up to 30 homes were destroyed. It was the one death and how it was handled that some residents found difficult to deal with.

Neighbors were concerned that the body of Denise Presley spent hours in a white body bag before it was removed, the Birmingham News reported.

"I couldn't sleep," said Darlene Hunt, a neighbor and friend of 40 years. "I kept thinking about her body out there. I was worried about dogs this is so hard."

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