Survivors Pick Up Pieces From Deadly Twisters

April 29, 2011

NPR Staff and Wires

It was bad enough that a tornado obliterated Derrick Keef's house. Worse still was the heartbreaking scavenger hunt for his most priceless possessions strewn across the devastated neighborhood.

His guns were in the ruins of a neighbor's home. A Christmas heirloom shared space in a ditch with broken glass and jagged nails. And his 7-year-old son's bike — one of the few toys he could salvage — was pinned under a car a block away.

"I've been going from lot to lot finding stuff," he said as he rifled through debris in Concord, Ala., in search of a family photo album. "It's like CSI."

As crews comb the remains of houses and neighborhoods pulverized by the nation's deadliest tornado outbreak in nearly four decades, survivors are left trying to figure out how to put their lives back together.

Those who took shelter as the storms descended are trickling back to their homes, ducking police roadblocks and fallen limbs and power lines to reclaim their belongings. Struggling with no electricity and little help from stretched-thin law enforcement, they're frustrated by the near-constant presence of gawkers who drove by in search of a cellphone camera picture — or worse, a trinket to take home.

Concord, a small town outside Birmingham, was so devastated that authorities closed it down to keep out rubberneckers.

Search and rescue teams fanned out to dig through the rubble of devastated communities that bore eerie similarities to the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, when town after town lay flattened for nearly 90 miles. Authorities in Concord and elsewhere even painted the same "X" symbols they did in New Orleans to mark which homes they searched and how many survivors were found.

At least 297 were killed across six states in Wednesday's outbreak. The storms seemed to hone in on populated areas by hugging the interstate highways and obliterating neighborhoods and entire towns from Tuscaloosa, Ala., to Bristol, Va.

On Friday, President Obama will travel to Tuscaloosa — a city of more than 83,000 that sustained some of the worst damage — to meet Gov. Robert Bentley and shattered families on Friday. As many as a million homes and businesses were without power in Alabama, and Bentley said 2,000 National Guard troops had been activated to help.

Late Thursday, Obama signed a disaster declaration for the state to provide federal aid to those who seek it. The governors of Mississippi and Georgia also issued emergency declarations for parts of their states.

"It's just devastation. I've never seen this," said U.S. Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL) during a visit to Tuscaloosa, home to the University of Alabama. "This is the worst tornado devastation I've ever seen."

Alabama got the brunt of the storms' damage. More than two-thirds of the victims lived there, and large cities bore the scars of half-mile-wide twisters that rumbled through. The high death toll seems surprising in the era of Doppler radar and precise satellite forecasts. But the storms were just too wide and too powerful to avoid a horrifying body count.

Alabama emergency management officials in a news release early Friday said the state had 210 confirmed deaths. There were 33 deaths in Mississippi, 33 in Tennessee, 15 in Georgia, five in Virginia and one in Kentucky.

Hundreds if not thousands of people were injured — 800 in Tuscaloosa alone. The loss of life is the greatest from an outbreak of U.S. tornadoes since April 1974, when the weather service said 315 people were killed by a storm that swept across 13 Southern and Midwestern states.

Officials said at least 13 of Mississippi's deaths were in the town of Smithville, where winds ripped open the police station, post office, city hall and an industrial park with several furniture factories.

Jones County Sheriff's Department spokesman Lance Chancellor described the devastation Friday on NPR's Morning Edition.

"There are brick structures [in Smithville], brick homes that were reduced to nothing left but the slab. And the carpet that was glued down on that slab was actually sucked up by the tornado," Chancellor said.

The police department lost all of its patrol cars — they were all slammed into the building and crushed by a fallen communications tower, he said. And the only thing left of the U.S. Post Office is a 20-foot section of brick wall.

"There's ... just debris everywhere you look in every direction," he said.

Smithville Fire Department Assistant Chief Tim Coker told NPR that the storm and its aftermath are "pretty traumatic for everybody" in their small town.

"We're all kind of like a small family more than a community because we all kind of grew up together and we all know each other," Coker said. "The hardest thing probably about being a volunteer is it's always people you know. That's kind of the tough part. So, you just kind of put the walls up and, uh, move on. It's going to sink in later, usually."

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.

This story contains material from The Associated Press. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.