By Gregg Bluestein and Melissa R. Nelson/The Associated Press
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Gas station 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 arrived 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. In one of its first official assessments of the tornadoes’ strength, the National Weather Service gave the worst possible rating to one that raked Mississippi and said it was the strongest to hit the state since 1966.
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.”
After witnessing the damage in storm-wracked neighborhoods, Obama said he’s “never seen devastation like this.”
He promised residents: “We’re going to make sure you’re not forgotten.”
The situation was dire 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 were killed there, the search for missing people continues.
The only grocery store, the fire and police departments and the school are destroyed. There’s no power, communications, water or other services. Fire Chief Steve Hood said he desperately wants flashlights for the town’s 1,500 residents because he doesn’t them to use candles that could start fires.
“We don’t have water to put out any fires,” he said.
People have looted a demolished Wrangler jeans 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 power outages.
In rural northeast Alabama’s Crossville, 25 to 30 vehicles lined up at the Fuel-Z. 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. They’d arrived Thursday night after the generator broke.
“We’ve been sleeping here all night. Well, I wouldn’t call it sleeping, crammed in the back of an SUV,” she said.
Those who went to shelters trickled back to their homes, ducking police roadblocks, fallen limbs and power lines to reclaim their belongings. The storms did most of their damage in Alabama, where more than two-thirds of the dead had lived.
Survivors 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.
As many as a million homes and businesses there were without power, and Alabama Gov. 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.
Concord, a small town outside Birmingham, was devastated. Derrick Keef undertook a heartbreaking scavenger hunt for his most priceless possessions strewn across his heavily damaged neighborhood.
His guns were in the ruins of a neighbor’s home. A Christmas heirloom shared space in a ditch with broken glass and jagged nails. And his 7-year-old son’s bike — one of the few toys he could salvage — was pinned under a car a block away.
“I’ve been going from lot to lot finding stuff,” he said as he rifled through debris in search of a family photo album. “It’s like CSI.”
Alabama emergency management officials said in a news release early Friday that the state had 210 confirmed deaths. There were 33 deaths in Mississippi, 33 in Tennessee, 15 in Georgia, five in Virginia and one in Kentucky. Hundreds if not thousands of people were injured — 900 in Tuscaloosa alone.
The loss of life is the greatest from an outbreak of U.S. tornadoes since April 1974, when the weather service said 315 people were killed by a storm that swept across 13 Southern and Midwestern states.
Some of the worst damage was in Tuscaloosa, a city of more than 83,000 that is home to the University of Alabama. The storms destroyed the city’s emergency management center, so the school’s Bryant-Denny Stadium was turned into a makeshift one. The city imposed a 10 p.m. curfew for Thursday and an 8 p.m. limit for Friday.
School officials said two students were killed, though they did not say how they died. Finals were canceled and commencement was postponed.
Shaylyndrea Jones, 22, had expected to graduate from the University of Alabama next weekend with a degree in sports science. Instead, she spent Thursday moving out of her ruined apartment, where she rode out the storm huddled in a hallway. But graduation suddenly isn’t so important — she’s just thankful she and her roommates survived the night.
“It was the scariest thing I’ve been through,” she said. “We were saying our prayers as it was coming down the street.”
Search and rescue teams fanned out to dig through the rubble of devastated communities that bore eerie similarities to the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, when town after town lay flattened for nearly 90 miles. Authorities in Concord and elsewhere even painted the same “X” symbols they did in New Orleans to mark which homes they searched and how many survivors were found.
Officials said at least 13 died in Smithville, Miss., where devastating winds ripped open the police station, post office, city hall and an industrial park with several furniture factories. Pieces of tin were twined high around the legs of a blue water tower, and the Piggly Wiggly grocery store was gutted.
At Smithville Cemetery, even the dead were not spared: Tombstones dating to the 1800s, including some of Civil War soldiers, lay broken on the ground. Brothers Kenny and Paul Long dragged their youngest brother’s headstone back to its proper place.
The National Weather service said the tornado that hit Smithville was a devastating EF-5 storm, with top winds of 205 mph. Meteorologist Jim LaDue at the weather service’s Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Okla., said he expects “many more” of Wednesday’s tornadoes to be rated EF-5, the worst rating in the tornado measurement system.
At least eight people were killed in Georgia’s Catoosa County, including in Ringgold, where a suspected tornado flattened about a dozen buildings and trapped an unknown number of people.
“It happened so fast I couldn’t think at all,” said Tom Rose, an Illinois truck driver whose vehicle was blown off the road at I-75 North in Ringgold, near the Tennessee line.
Bluestein reported from Concord, Ala., Nelson from Tuscaloosa, Ala. Associated Press writers Holbrook Mohr in Phil Campbell, Ala.; Jeffrey Collins in Concord, Ala.; Jay Reeves in Tuscaloosa; Phillip Rawls in Montgomery; Vicki Smith in Morgantown, W.Va.; Kristi Eaton in Norman, Okla.; Ray Henry in Ringgold, Ga.; Meg Kinnard in Columbia, S.C.; Michelle Williams in Atlanta; and Bill Poovey in Chattanooga, Tenn., contributed to this report.