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Federal officials tour areas hit by tornadoes, pledge help

Residents visit churches to give thanks and mourn

  • FEDERAL-OFFICIALS-TOUR-AFFLICTED-AREAS

    Volunteer Brooke Jackson of Tuscaloosa, Ala., helps organize items donated for tornado victims. Federal officials will make loans available to help with rebuilding.

    <ASSOCIATED PRESS

  • Federal-officials-tour-areas-hit-by-tornadoes-pledge-help

    With remains of their church building in Smithville, Miss., as a backdrop, deacons from Smithville Baptist Church pray before Sunday services. Some of the South's surviving churches have become headquarters for rebuilding.

    <associated press

Federal-officials-tour-areas-hit-by-tornadoes-pledge-help

With remains of their church building in Smithville, Miss., as a backdrop, deacons from Smithville Baptist Church pray before Sunday services. Some of the South's surviving churches have become headquarters for rebuilding.

associated press Enlarge

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- The storms that roared across the South last week flattened churches and crushed the homes of parishioners in a ragged stretch from Mississippi to Virginia. At least 342 people were killed and thousands more hurt.

So on the first Sunday after the disaster, believers streamed into houses of worship to give thanks for being spared and to mourn the dead.

Many people in the region saw God at work, even amid the devastation.

"God just put his big old arms around us," said Peggy Blevins, 59, of Rainsville, Ala. "I don't understand why he takes some people and leaves others. But I thank Him just the same for protecting us."

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano toured hard-hit neighborhoods of Alabama and Mississippi to offer condolences and pledge support for local residents and emergency workers.

"I don't think words can fairly express the level of devastation," she said.

In shattered Smithville, Miss., Ms. Napolitano met with Gov. Haley Barbour, who thanked her and Federal Emergency Management Agency Director Craig Fugate for the assistance.

Ms. Napolitano pledged continued federal support for states that were hit hard by the tornadoes.

"This is not going to be a quick comeback or an immediate [recovery], but it will be, in my view, a complete one," she said in Smithville.

Ms. Napolitano and Mr. Fugate were joined by Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack as they visited damaged areas.

To help people get back on their feet, the Department of Agriculture will make homes in rural areas available to be rented, Mr. Vilsack said.

FEDERAL-OFFICIALS-TOUR-AFFLICTED-AREAS

Volunteer Brooke Jackson of Tuscaloosa, Ala., helps organize items donated for tornado victims. Federal officials will make loans available to help with rebuilding.

ASSOCIATED PRESS Enlarge

The U.S. Small Business Administration announced it would make loans of up to $200,000 available to homeowners and up to $2 million for small businesses. It would also make $80 million available in block grants to states.

In most small towns around the region, churches are community centers, town halls, and gymnasiums.

Some were wiped out. Some of those left standing have become headquarters for rebuilding.

American Christian Academy, a private school in Tuscaloosa, Ala., was host for a service at a football stadium within walking distance of neighborhoods where several churches were destroyed.

Lisa Thompson, 37, her fiance, and her daughter came to the service because they don't know if their church, College Hill Baptist, survived. They haven't made it past the police checkpoints that have sealed off the area.

"My faith is stronger now than ever," she said. "I know God will test you, but it can't be nothing but stronger."

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