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In Alabama's Pleasant Grove, a scene that belies its name

Residents return to this once-serene neighborhood hit by tornadoes looking for memorabilia only to find strewn wires, rubble and tree trunks from the oak groves that used to make this place special.

May 01, 2011|By Esmeralda Bermudez, Los Angeles Times
  • A resident in Pleasant Grove, Ala., searches through what is left of his home after it was destroyed by a tornado. More than 300 people have died in the tornadoes that struck the South this week, the highest such storm-related death toll in the country since 1925.
A resident in Pleasant Grove, Ala., searches through what is left of his… (Associated Press )

Reporting from Pleasant Grove, Ala. — The line of cars into Pleasant Grove stretched nearly a mile Saturday afternoon as residents made their way into the neighborhood to dig through the debris.

A message scrawled on a building near the entrance read: "Mourn for the dead. Fight like hell for the living."

The once-serene slopes shaded by thick oak groves were unrecognizable. Street after street was strewn with mangled wires, wooden planks and metal sheeting.

Photo gallery: Tornadoes cut path of devastation

The trees that used to make the place so special now posed a new menace to those digging, forcing them to maneuver around fallen tree trunks and massive roots.

"Forget about it," Nelly Vasquez said in Spanish to her friend, who drove her to the center of 5th Street, where her two-bedroom rental once blossomed with tulips and roses.

All that was visible now was an enormous oak collapsed across the driveway. The house had disintegrated.

Vasquez and her three children, ages 11, 6 and 4, planned to stay with a friend. She hoped to buy new clothes and then save aggressively in coming weeks for a deposit on a new apartment and eventually, furniture.

"I need to research, research," the housekeeper said, already making a mental list of necessities: the light bill, the phone line, the grocery list.

Around the corner, Robbie South was not prepared to talk about the future.

The retired steel worker looked at his 90-year-old father's house -- a teetering pile of brick and rubble and, quietly, wiped tears from his eyes with his shirt.

"This was his castle," said the 62-year-old, whose family arrived in Pleasant Grove in the 1920s. "If there was a weed in the yard, he'd be on his hands and knees ripping it out."

Tornado photos

Scenes from the devastated South

On Saturday, he hoped to walk away with a few photos of his late mother. He had filed an insurance claim on behalf of his father and planned to take care of his own home and then move him into his sister's rental.

"Everything else is replaceable," he said. "Right now we just hope to recover some memories."

As he spoke, the stench of gasoline filled the stuffy air and chain saws buzzed around him. Volunteers zipped past in all-terrain vehicles and giant trucks hollering:

"Cold water! Garbage bags! Work gloves!"

Everyone had to move swiftly before sundown, when Pleasant Grove shut down for curfew. In days past, a few destroyed homes were looted, leading to some arrests.

Some areas were completely closed off as crews continued to search for missing people.

Amber Walker and her troop worked diligently through her two-bedroom rental -- a pile of debris that now spanned several hundred feet. The 32-year-old, her friend, her nephew, mother and grandmother hunted for anything with meaning.

"You guys!" Walker shouted, yanking a muddied, dog-eared pink book from underneath some branches. "Here's the Bible my grandma gave me the day I was born."

She also found a watch that no longer worked and a pillow belonging to Fancy, their Chihuahua, who they found days after the storm, cowering in the banged-up washing machine.

Photo gallery: Tornadoes cut path of devastation

esmeralda.bermudez@latimes.com

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