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South reels in aftermath of tornado disaster

Death toll hits 328; rescuers’ efforts stymied

President Obama toured wreckage in Tuscaloosa, Ala., yesterday. Up to 1 million Alabama homes and businesses remained without power following Wednesday’s tornado outbreak, which killed dozens of people in Tuscaloosa. President Obama toured wreckage in Tuscaloosa, Ala., yesterday. Up to 1 million Alabama homes and businesses remained without power following Wednesday’s tornado outbreak, which killed dozens of people in Tuscaloosa. (Charles Dharapak/Associated Press)
By Jay Reeves and Greg Bluestein
Associated Press / April 30, 2011

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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Southerners found their emergency safety net shredded yesterday as they tried to emerge from the nation’s deadliest tornado disaster since the Great Depression.

Emergency buildings are wiped out. Bodies are stored in refrigerated trucks. Authorities are begging for such basics as flashlights. In one neighborhood, the storms even left firefighters to work without a truck.

The death toll from Wednesday’s storms reached 328 across seven states, including 238 in Alabama, making it the deadliest US tornado outbreak since March 1932, when another Alabama storm killed 332 people. Tornadoes that swept across the South and Midwest in April 1974 left 315 people dead.

Hundreds if not thousands of people were injured — 900 in Tuscaloosa alone — and as many as 1 million Alabama homes and businesses remained without power.

The scale of the disaster astonished President Obama when he arrived in the state yesterday.

“I’ve never seen devastation like this,’’ he said, standing in bright sunshine amid the wreckage in Tuscaloosa, where dozens of people were killed and entire neighborhoods were flattened.

At least one tornado — a 205 miles-per-hour monster that left at least 13 people dead in Smithville, Miss. — ranked in the National Weather Service’s most devastating category, EF-5. Meteorologist Jim LaDue said he expects “many more’’ of Wednesday’s tornadoes to receive that same rating, with winds topping 200 miles per hour.

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 a family survived being tossed across a road in their modular home, which was destroyed, Mayor Bobby Collier said.

By yesterday, residents whose homes were blown to pieces were seeing their losses worsen, not by nature, but by man. In Tuscaloosa and other cities, looters have been picking through the wreckage to steal what little the victims have left.

“The first night they took my jewelry, my watch, my guns,’’ Shirley Long said yesterday. “They were out here again last night doing it again.’’

Overwhelmed Tuscaloosa police imposed a curfew and got help from National Guard troops to try to stop the scavenging.

Along their flattened paths, the twisters blew down police and fire stations and other emergency buildings along with homes, businesses, churches, and power infrastructure. The number of buildings lost, damage estimates, and number of people left homeless remained unclear two days later, in part because the storm also ravaged communications systems.

Yesterday, tales of survival emerged across the region. A Georgia salon owner and her two daughters — Sky and Stormy — climbed inside a tanning bed while a tornado ripped the roof off their business. A Virginia couple scrambled under their garage’s wooden steps after a twister ripped off their home’s roof. Mississippi mobile home park residents found shelter in a Baptist church, clinging to one another as the building disintegrated.

Those who escaped the twisters hid in bathrooms, cramped closets, under porches, and even in a car entombed by a collapsing basement garage. Many tell tales of having just minutes or mere seconds to make life-and-death decisions.

University of Alabama student Shaylyndrea Jones rode out a monstrous tornado in the hallway of a second-floor apartment that shook violently as whole city blocks of Tuscaloosa were chewed up.

“We were saying our prayers as it was coming down the street. There was a rumbling and this loud woosh,’’ she said. At least 36 were killed in the college town.

The sturdy tanning bed saved Lisa Rice, owner of S&L Tans in Trenton, Ga., and her daughters, 19-year-old Stormy and 21-year-old Sky.

“Sky said, ‘We’re going to die.’ But, I said, ‘No, just pray. Just pray, just pray, just pray,’ ’’ Lisa Rice said.

For 30 seconds, wind rushed around the bed and debris flew.

“Then it just stopped. It got real quiet. We waited a few minutes and then opened up the bed and we saw daylight,’’ she said.

Jerry Stewart, a 63-year-old retired firefighter of suburban Birmingham survived under his front porch with his wife, daughter, and two grandchildren.

“They said the storm was in Tuscaloosa and it would be here in 15 minutes,’’ he said. “And before I knew it, it was here.’’

Stewart pulled the bodies of two neighbors from the rubble of a home ripped off its foundation.

Teacher Victoria Mattox, 29, was asleep in Barnesville, Ga., when a friend texted her at 12:42 a.m. Thursday telling her the sirens were going off in town. She leapt from bed and made it to her closet just in time. Seconds later she could feel her house shaking under battering winds. Windows popped out in the adjoining bedroom and then the ceiling peeled off above her head.

Within seconds, it was over and the closet where she had hunkered down was the only part of the house left standing, a large tree uprooted and arched over it.

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