Clean up begins as death toll rises

Federal officials promise aid to tornado ravaged states

CULLMAN, AL (UPI) | May 1, 2011

"This building is destroyed. But that is just the church house. But what sits before us today is the church. It's what feeds people and takes care of people in need"

—Pastor Ronnie Cline

The cleanup following tornadoes that ripped across the southern United States has begun with the death toll still rising, officials said.

At least 340 people died in the storms that struck seven southern states Wednesday and Thursday, the heaviest death toll in Alabama where 249 people were killed and others remain missing.

"Unfortunately, right now we don't know that [how many are missing]," state Sen. Paul Bussman said in a Wall Street Journal report Sunday.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Craig Fugate Sunday visited Mississippi and Alabama with other top administration officials to survey the damage.

"FEMA is part of a team that continues to work with communities to help them rebuild and recover," Fugate said. "This administration will bring the full support of the federal government and its partners to bear to support the states, families and communities devastated by these deadly tornadoes, for as long as it takes."

President Barack Obama visited Tuscaloosa, Ala., Friday and said the government would do whatever it could to help areas devastated by the storms recover.

"We are going to help these communities rebuild," Obama said.

In Pratt City, a working-class section of Birmingham, Ala., entire blocks of homes were destroyed. Birmingham Fire Marshal C.W. Mardis said many of the newly homeless probably don't have the funds to rebuild.

"It'll take some time," Mardis said of recovery efforts. "It's going to need government assistance."

Authorities said they haven't yet determined the force of the tornadoes that hit northern Alabama.

Officials said one of the funnel clouds that struck northeast Mississippi was a category EF-5, the highest rating for tornado damage, with winds higher than 200 mph. The last time a twister that powerful hit the state was in 1966.

The death toll from the storms topped a powerful storm system in 1974 that killed 310 people.

"There are a lot of unanswered questions," said Greg Carbin, a meteorologist at the federal Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Okla.

The Red Cross, the Salvation Army and other relief agencies set up shelters in cities devastated by the storms.

In Alabama's Cullman County, the local commission on aging was working to deliver 5,000 meals to elderly residents by Tuesday. The agency said it wants to provide each person with enough non-perishable food to last through the week.

"We know how to search, we know how to rescue, we know how to protect," said Mike Hale, sheriff of Jefferson County, Ala.

He said while his deputies have the technical aspects of the recovery effort under control, he is worried about the emotional trauma residents are suffering. Twenty people in Jefferson County died in the storms.

During Sunday services outside the destroyed Crowe Springs Baptist Church in Bartow County, Ga., Pastor Ronnie Cline told the crowd -- double the normal attendance -- that the people are the church, while the demolished building is just a "house."

"This building is destroyed. But that is just the church house. But what sits before us today is the church. It's what feeds people and takes care of people in need," Cline said.

The church's fiberglass steeple was found in a farm pond 8 miles away.

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