Tornado survivors pick up pieces as Obama visits

By GREG BLUESTEIN and MELISSA R. NELSON, Associated Press Writers Published: April 29, 2011
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Gas lines, looting and the discovery of smashed heirlooms sapped survivors' energy Friday around cities shattered by the deadliest tornado outbreak in nearly four decades. President Barack Obama landed in devastated Alabama to console victims, while authorities worked to overcome damaged infrastructure and even a shortage of body bags in one town.

As Obama stepped off a plane at the airport in hard-hit Tuscaloosa, rescuers and survivors combed the remains of neighborhoods pulverized by Wednesday's outbreak that killed at least 297 across six states.

The president's arrival drew a muted response from Tuscaloosa resident Derek Harris, who was pushing a grocery buggy down a street where virtually every home was heavily damaged. The 47-year-old and his wife hoped to use the cart to salvage a few belongings from his home.

"Hopefully he'll give us some money to start over," Harris said of Obama. "Is FEMA here? The only place I'm hearing anything is at the Red Cross center."

Some were more upbeat about the president's visit, including 21-year-old Turner Woods, who watched Obama's motorcade pass on its way to tour damaged areas. "It's just really special having the president come here," she said. "It will bring more attention to this disaster and help get more help here."

The situation was dire about 90 miles to the north in the demolished town of Hackleburg, Ala., where officials were keeping bodies in a refrigerated truck amid a body bag shortage. Officials said at least 27 are dead there, and searches for the missing continue. Town officials say they need everything from body portable showers, to tents and flashlights.

The only grocery store, the fire and police departments and the school are destroyed. There's no power, communications, water or other services.

People have looted a demolished Wrangler plant, and authorities locked up drugs from a destroyed pharmacy in a bank vault, said Stanley Webb, chief agent in the county's drug task force.

"If people steal, we are not playing around. They will go to jail," he said.

Elsewhere, drivers hunted for fuel for cars and generators after many gas stations were shuttered by widespread power outages.

In rural northeast Alabama, a line of 25 to 30 cars formed early Friday at the Fuel-Z in Crossville in hopes its generator would be fixed soon. The station had been the only one open for many miles until a generator part failed Thursday night.

An employee said the repair might take until Saturday, but Natasha Brazil and her boyfriend weren't going anywhere in their Dodge Durango SUV. She lives about 10 miles away but said she only has enough gas for another mile or two after getting to the station around 10 p.m. the night before, too late to fuel up before the generator broke down.

"We've been sleeping here all night. Well, I wouldn't call it sleeping, crammed in the back of an SUV," she said. She's tried calling family and friends for help, but with the power out since Wednesday, she figures everybody's cell phones are dead.

Those who took shelter as the storms descended trickled back to their homes Thursday, ducking police roadblocks and fallen limbs and power lines to reclaim their belongings.

They struggled with no electricity and little help from stretched-thin law enforcement. And they were frustrated by the near-constant presence of gawkers who drove by in search of a cellphone camera picture — or worse, a trinket to take home.

"It's just devastation. I've never seen this," said Sen. Richard Shelby during a visit to storm-ravaged Tuscaloosa. "This is the worst tornado devastation I've ever seen."

The storms did the brunt of their damage in Alabama. More than two-thirds of the victims lived there, and large cities bore the scars of half-mile-wide twisters that rumbled through. The high death toll seems surprising in the era of Doppler radar and precise satellite forecasts. But the storms were just too wide and too powerful to avoid a horrifying body count.

As many as a million homes and businesses there were without power, and Bentley said 2,000 National Guard troops had been activated to help. The governors of Mississippi and Georgia also issued emergency declarations for parts of their states.

The storms seemed to hone in on populated areas by hugging the interstate highways and obliterating neighborhoods and even entire towns from Tuscaloosa to Bristol, Va.

Concord, a small town outside Birmingham, was so devastated that authorities closed it down to keep out rubberneckers. Official discusses tornadoes in the U.S. this week Official addresses another deadly tornado