ASSOCIATED PRESS Enlarge
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 being 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 329 across seven states, including 238 in Alabama, making it the deadliest U.S. tornado outbreak since March, 1932, when another Alabama storm killed 332 people.
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 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.
Mr. 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, but they had not found any remains, Mr. 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,” Mr. 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.
Power remained out for hundreds of thousands throughout the South, rendering gasoline stations, grocery stores, and banks useless. Fifteen-hundred people were staying in more than 65 Red Cross shelters, a fraction of those who were left homeless but an indication of the numbers who are now destitute.
So far in Alabama, 654 families have been displaced from public or government-assisted housing units, according to an initial count by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development.
The Red Cross, with an eye toward the mental health issues that will develop in the difficult days and weeks ahead, has dispatched hundreds of volunteers trained to offer psychological first aid.
Mr. Obama, who visited Tuscaloosa along with First Lady Michelle Obama, gave a sense of the scale of the disaster after a ride through a neighborhood that was turned into a jagged wasteland.
“I’ve never seen devastation like this,” he said.
But, echoing the volunteers who have come in such high numbers that they are being turned away in some areas, Mr. Obama turned the focus toward the work ahead.
“We can’t bring those who have been lost back,” he said. “But the property damage, which is obviously extensive, that’s something that we can do something about.”
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, Tennessee, 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 some 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. “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.
A fire station was destroyed in 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 fire truck, city Fire Chief Alan Martin said.
Chief Martin said the department is running normally and has since deployed a backup vehicle to serve the neighborhood.
“In reality, it’s just an extension of what we do every day,” he 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,” she said.
Emergency services were stretched 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.
Damage in Hackleburg was catastrophic, said Stanley Webb, head of the county’s drug task force.
“When we talk about these homes, they are not damaged. They are gone,” he said.