What Obama will find in tornado-torn Alabama
President Obama travels to Alabama Friday to see first-hand the impact of tornadoes whose casualty toll across six states rises to 319.
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"We are still in process of searching the houses and areas that were damaged, looking for people who may be trapped," said Jimmy Harris, sheriff of Dekalb County, Ala., who is dealing with at least 30 lives lost in his corner of northeastern Alabama. "There are still many people who've been reported missing and are unaccounted for, and we are doing our best to locate them."Skip to next paragraph
In Pictures Alabama tornadoes
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Officials have worked alongside civilians as the devastation far outdistanced the state's manpower. "Everybody's been doing a great job, but there's no way [officials] can handle this by themselves," says Don Oliver, helping a Cherokee County family dig belongings out of a destroyed home. "All hands have been on deck."
The breadth of destruction stunned many residents. "We have our own little 'Tornado Alley' here," says Susan Pell, who lives near the site of the 1994 "Palm Sunday Tornado" that claimed 20 lives. "But this is something else entirely. They say the tornado was weakening as it hit us. This is weak?" In her sightline lay a valley devastated by a tornado whose windspeeds may have exceeded 200 miles per hour.
In Tuscaloosa, Ala., where at least 36 people died, the devastation stretches for miles and over a thousand people are living in shelters. In Phil Campbell, Ala., a town of 1,000 residents lost at least 26 people, as a half-mile-scale twister tore through some 20 miles of rolling country.
The havoc reached beyond Alabama; at least six states report major casualties. Twelve people died in tiny Smithville, Miss., as a tornado tore apart the post office, city hall and homes. Smithville Baptist Church Pastor Wes White told the Associated Press that congregants gripped each other as a single "mass of humanity" as the church broke apart around them.
But as communities came together to search and sift, grief found an outlet in camaraderie and the common purpose of rebuilding, writes Birmingham resident Kyle Whitmire, a blogger at Second Front, in a CNN op-ed.
"There is something real though to be found in the response of so many people, both from neighbors next door and strangers far away," he writes. "The thousands of acts of small heroism happening now bring with them the meaning and hope we need right now. Healing is not a passive act, nor a solitary one, but one carried out together."
April has seen 685 tornadoes, mostly in the South, the most for an April since modern records were begun in the 1950s. During his visit, Obama will probably focus on what Washington can do to help – and the sense of loss shared by a nation.