Scope of Alabama's tornado-spawned humanitarian crisis grows

Churches, nonprofits, and government support teams race toward Alabama as tornado victims wander the rubble. Toothbrushes, clean water, and a roof to sleep under are among the most pressing needs.

By , Staff writer

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    A woman receives clothing at a Red Cross shelter in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, on Friday, April 29. The city, with a population of over 90,000, has lost at least 37 lives in the storms and tornadoes that swept through the southern United States this week claiming more than 300 lives.
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In a scene reminiscent of the days following hurricane Katrina in 2005, churches, nonprofit relief agencies, and government supplies are racing toward tornado-raked Alabama to alleviate what Tuscaloosa mayor Walt Maddox described as a "humanitarian crisis."

Last week's 200-tornado scattershot across the South became the second deadliest in US history, as the death toll rose to 337. With power still out for nearly 1 million people, hundreds, if not thousands, of homes obliterated and water supplies tainted, Alabamians – including official rescue personnel – struggled for basic needs as the shock of the storms that hit the South on Tuesday and Wednesday began to wear off.

"Something as simple as a toothbrush, clothing. There are some people, all they have got is a robe," a Pratt City, Ala. man told reporters. "So, we got to find clothing for them and provide those things for them, so that they can start back rebuilding their lives."

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IN PICTURES: Alabama tornadoes

Agencies like the Red Cross, which provides shelter and food in the wake of disasters, continued to beef up resources in Alabama in appreciation of both the immediate need as well as the sheer breadth of damage. The tally of homeless and numbers of properties lost hasn't been completed in part because the state's information infrastructure is torn up.

The lure of personal property scattered from smashed homes also became an issue for overwhelmed first responders. In Tuscaloosa, where at least 39 people lost their lives and 1,000 were injured, National Guard troops were called in to try to stop people from looting broken homes of guns, jewelry, and other valuables.

As in many places around the region, the storms hobbled Tuscaloosa's ability to respond appropriately to a damage path that runs a mile wide for nearly six miles.

"This is a nightmare," Mayor Maddox told the Newshour's Ray Suarez on PBS. "Not only have we lost a large part of our city ... [but] we lost our environmental services fleet ... [o]ur Emergency Management Agency, which handles disaster, blown away. We lost fire stations, we lost police precincts, we lost the main communication tower. We lost our entire ability to provide recovery efforts after this storm."

The Red Cross is currently housing 1,500 people in 65 shelters across the state, but the relief agency had not completed an assessment of how many people or how many supplies it needs to ultimately dispatch to the six-state region impacted by the tornadoes. The Salvation Army reported that it had 38 "feeding units" and one shower trailer deployed in Mississippi and Alabama.

"Throughout the day on Friday, local and state authorities continued to request additional resources from the Salvation Army, as new pockets of need continued to present themselves," said Bill Feist, a disaster services director with the Salvation Army.

Church groups from Ohio to North Carolina are organizing relief trips and filling semi-trailers with clothing and food to be sent into the storm-struck region.

FEMA reported that "supplies such as meals, water, infant toddler kits and tarps begin to arrive, or are en-route to an incident support base established in Maxwell, Ala. The support base will allow FEMA to move supplies closer to the affected area, in case they are needed."

"The first step was to get through the storm," Mercy King, a pregnant mom who barely escaped a tornado in Shoal Creek Valley, Ala., told the Birmingham News. "Now, it's time to start cleaning up and support people who need it."

In Alabama on Friday, President Obama applauded the "American spirit" he saw in action as communities rallied to safeguard victims and requisition supplies.

"We go through hard times, but no matter how hard we may be tested, we maintain our faith and we look to each other to make sure that we're supporting each other and helping each other," Obama said.

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