TUSCALOOSA, Ala. – Southerners found their emergency safety net shredded Friday 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 337 across several states, including 246 in Alabama, making it the second-deadliest tornado outbreak in U.S. history. The largest death toll ever was on March 18, 1925, when 747 people were killed in storms that raged through Missouri, Illinois and Indiana.
Hundreds if not thousands of people were injured Wednesday – 990 in Tuscaloosa alone – and as many as 1 million Alabama homes and businesses remained without power.
The scale of the disaster astonished President Barack Obama when he arrived in the state Friday.
“I’ve never seen devastation like this,” he said, standing in bright sunshine amid the wreckage in Tuscaloosa, where at least 45 people were killed and entire neighborhoods were flattened.
Mayor Walt Maddox called it “a humanitarian crisis” for his city of more than 83,000.
Maddox said up to 446 people were unaccounted for in the city, though he added that many of those reports probably were from people who have since found their loved ones but have not notified authorities. Cadaver-detecting dogs were deployed in the city Friday but they had not found any remains, Maddox said.
During the mayor’s news conference, a man asked him for help getting into his home, and broke down as he told his story.
“You have the right to cry,” Maddox told him. “And I can tell you the people of Tuscaloosa are crying with you.”
At least one tornado – a 205-mph 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 mph.
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 Friday, 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 Friday. “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.
Tuscaloosa’s emergency management center was destroyed, so officials used space in one of the city’s most prominent buildings – the University of Alabama’s Bryant-Denny Stadium – as a substitute before moving operations to the Alabama Fire College. Less than two weeks ago, the stadium hosted more than 90,000 fans for the football team’s spring intrasquad Red-White Game.
A fire station was destroyed in nearby Alberta City, one of the city’s worst-hit neighborhoods. The firefighters survived, but damage to their equipment forced them to begin rescue operations without a firetruck, city Fire Chief Alan Martin said.
Also wiped out was a Salvation Army building, costing Tuscaloosa much-needed shelter space. And that’s just part of the problem in providing emergency aid, said Sister Carol Ann Gray of the local Catholic Social Services office.
“It has been extremely difficult to coordinate because so many people have been affected – some of the very same people you’d look to for assistance,” Gray said.
Emergency services were stretched particularly thin about 90 miles to the north in the demolished town of Hackleburg, Ala., where officials were keeping the dead in a refrigerated truck amid a body bag shortage. At least 27 people were killed there and the search for missing people continued, with FBI agents fanning out to local hospitals to help.
Damage in Hackleburg was catastrophic, said Stanley Webb, chief agent in the county’s drug task force.
“When we talk about these homes, they are not damaged. They are gone,” he said.
Friday night, Obama declared Mississippi to be a disaster area, qualifying six counties in that state for federal funding.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency has responded to all affected areas and has officials on the ground in Alabama, Mississippi, Kentucky, Georgia and Tennessee, Director Craig Fugate said. State and local authorities remain in charge of response and recovery efforts, Fugate said.