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Tornado-ravaged communities tally their losses

In hard-hit DeKalb County, Ala., where 33 people died, residents help one another with shelters and the cleanup. In Tuscaloosa, the mayor says the city is living a 'nightmare.'

April 29, 2011|By Esmeralda Bermudez, Kate Linthicum and Christopher Goffard, Los Angeles Times
  • The path of a tornado that destroyed much of Tuscaloosa, Ala., is seen from the air.
The path of a tornado that destroyed much of Tuscaloosa, Ala., is seen from… (Christine Prichard / European…)

Reporting from Rainsville, Ala., Tuscaloosa, Ala., — On a day when President Obama toured tornado-ravaged Tuscaloosa and declared that he'd never seen devastation like it, residents of DeKalb County — a lesser-known region of corn and chicken farms about 150 miles northeast — were quietly counting the cost of their own tragedy.

There were 33 dead and more than 200 hurt in the county so far, making DeKalb one of the hardest-hit regions in the multi-state tornado siege that has killed at least 333 people and injured more than 2,000 this week, the deadliest twister outbreak since 1925.

Across DeKalb on Friday, two days after hundreds of homes were reduced to splinters by a twister that plowed a 25-mile path through the county, teenagers cut felled trees with chainsaws and mothers raked up debris. With rain expected early next week, people scrambled to fix roofs.

In Rainsville, one of the county hubs, the civic center was gutted, as was the nearby Huddle House, a favorite social spot. Neighborhoods had no electricity, running water was scarce, and cows were roaming loose.

Jeff Mann, a pastor, spent the day consoling rescue workers who had witnessed too much death. One deputy he counseled had helped recover 28 bodies. "Today, all these guys look like they're doing fine, but tomorrow you'll start to see them with glassy eyes from all that they've seen," Mann said.

Kandi Howard, 49, a volunteer at Destiny Church International, drove through town handing out cases of water and offering rides. It was better than the helpless feeling of sitting around. "Everybody's heard of Tuscaloosa, but people will wonder, 'Where the heck is Rainsville?' " she said.

When the twister bore down on 39-year-old Sonya Mahon's home on Lingerfelt Road on Wednesday, she ran into the bedroom closet with her son and 9-month-old granddaughter. Suddenly four teenage boys she did not know rushed into the closet with them. They had been driving down the road and, desperate to escape the twister, picked her sturdy-looking brick house as a shelter.

Afterward, her home was still standing, though wooden houses on either side were destroyed. Families had managed to survive in them by hiding under mattresses and in a bathroom. Down the street, two women died.

"It feels terrible," said Wes Mahon, 46, Sonya's husband, surveying the damage. "It feels like you've got to start all over again."

Some bodies had to be buried right away because they couldn't be embalmed and the freezers weren't big enough to fit them all, said Lt. George Thorpe, an Alabama state trooper.

This northeastern Alabama county is proud of its self-sufficiency, and perhaps nothing better illustrated that quality than the emergency shelters that stood mostly empty Friday. People who had lost their homes had found shelter with family and friends.

"This county has learned over the years to take care of itself," said Mike Leath, director of the county's emergency medical agency. "They're very tightknit and very close."

On Friday morning, Obama and his family flew to Tuscaloosa, then traveled by motorcade through the city, where trees were toppled, neighborhoods flattened.

"I've never seen devastation like this," Obama said.

The president has promised full federal cooperation in disaster relief efforts. "We're going to make sure you're not forgotten," he told residents. The Federal Emergency Management Agency has sent personnel to Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky and Tennessee.

In a radio interview, Tuscaloosa Mayor Walt Maddox said he had originally told federal emergency officials that his city was a disaster. But now, he said, "I would classify it as a nightmare."

Maddox estimated during an interview with "PBS NewsHour" that about 6,000 homes "were directly in the path of the tornado" and that an additional 15,000 homes may have been damaged.

"On the housing issue, if we can't get some quick solutions to that, we're going to be facing a humanitarian crisis in the weeks to come," he told PBS.

The death toll in Tuscaloosa was at least 45, with 228 deaths reported in the state. The University of Alabama confirmed that three students had died. By the latest count, there were 34 deaths in Tennessee, 34 in Mississippi, 15 in Georgia, 14 in Arkansas, five in Virginia, two in Louisiana and one in Kentucky.

On Friday, minutes after Obama toured Tuscaloosa's ravaged Alberta neighborhood, a group of volunteers waved down rescue workers and breathlessly told them that they had discovered survivors in an apartment building nearby.

Paramedics raced to the scene and climbed over debris to reach the building, where just one of the four apartments was intact. Inside they found a family: two parents and a teenage girl with cerebral palsy who relies on crutches. Her mother didn't think she could get down the stairs.

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