Tuscaloosa, Ala. – As President Obama visited Alabama on Friday, which was at the epicenter of a region that endured storms that killed hundreds across the South, people from Texas to Virginia searched through the rubble of their homes, schools and businesses for survivors.
“I've never seen devastation like this,” Mr. Obama said during a tour of this college town, according to The Associated Press. “We're going to make sure you're not forgotten.”
Nearly 300 people across six states died in the storms, with the vast majority — 213 people — in Alabama. Tuscaloosa, the home of the University of Alabama, has in some places been shorn to the slab, and accounts for at least 36 of those deaths.
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Thousands have been injured, and untold more have been left homeless, hauling their belongings in garbage bags or rooting through disgorged piles of wood and siding to find anything salvageable.
By Friday morning, gasoline and other supplies were getting difficult to find in parts of Alabama. County emergency directors cautioned people to not show up to help.
“They don't yet have an infrastructure to handle donations or volunteers,” Phyllis Little, the Cullman County emergency management director, told a Birmingham television station. “Right now, we're not in a ready mode to receive donations or volunteers yet. We are working toward that. Hopefully by tomorrow or Sunday, I'll have better answers.”
In Pleasant Grove, Ala., a community near Birmingham where nine people died, a church was taking food donations — hamburgers, corn dogs, bottled water — and serving as a makeshift kitchen for hundreds of people who are now homeless. In other areas, the Red Cross is providing meals at shelters.
While Alabama was hit the hardest, the storm spared few states across the South. Thirty-three people were reported dead in Tennessee, 32 in Mississippi, 15 in Georgia, 5 in Virginia and one in Kentucky, according to The Associated Press. With search and rescue crews still climbing through debris and making their way down tree-strewn country roads, the toll is expected to rise.
“History tells me estimating deaths is a bad business,” said W. Craig Fugate, the Federal Emergency Management Agency administrator, in a conference call with reporters on Thursday.
Cries could be heard into the night here in Tuscaloosa on Wednesday, but on Thursday hope had dwindled. Mayor Walt Maddox said that the search and rescue operation would go for 24 to 48 more hours, before the response pivoted its focus to recovery.
“They're looking for five kids in this rubble here,” said Lathesia Jackson-Gibson, 33, a nurse, pointing to the incoherent heap of planks and household appliances sitting next to the muddled guts of her own house. “They're mostly small kids.”
Gov. Robert Bentley toured the state by helicopter on Thursday along with federal officials, tracking a vast scar that stretched from Birmingham to his hometown, Tuscaloosa. He declared Alabama “a major, major disaster.”
“As we flew down from Birmingham, the track is all the way down, and then when you get in Tuscaloosa here it's devastating,” Governor Bentley said at an afternoon news conference, with an obliterated commercial strip as a backdrop.
An enormous response operation was under way across the South, with emergency officials working alongside churches, sororities and other volunteer groups. In Alabama, more than 2,000 National Guard troops have been deployed.
Across nine states, more than 1,680 people spent Wednesday in Red Cross shelters, said Attie Poirier, a spokeswoman with the organization. The last time the Red Cross had set up such an elaborate system of shelters was after Hurricane Katrina, a comparison made by even some of those who had known the experience firsthand.
“It reminds me of home so much,” said Eric Hamilton, 40, a former Louisianan, who was sitting on the sidewalk outside the Belk Activity Center, which was being used as a Red Cross shelter in south Tuscaloosa.
Mr. Hamilton lived in a poor area of Tuscaloosa called Alberta City, which residents now describe merely as “gone.” He wiped tears off his cheeks.
“I've never seen so many bodies,” Mr. Hamilton said. “Babies, women. So many bodies.”
Officials at the National Weather Service Storm Prediction Center said they had received 137 tornado reports on Wednesday, with 104 of them coming from Alabama and Mississippi. Over all, there have been 297 confirmed tornadoes this month, breaking a 36-year-old record.
Southerners, who have had to learn the drill all too well this month, watched with dread on Wednesday night as the shape-shifting storm system crept eastward across the weather map. Upon hearing the rumble of a tornado, or even the hysterical barking of a family dog, people crammed into closets, bathtubs and restaurant coolers, clutching their children and family photos.
Many of the lucky survivors found a completely different world when they opened their closet doors.
“We heard crashing,” said Steve Sikes, 48, who lives in a middle-class Tuscaloosa neighborhood called the Downs. “Then dirt and pine needles came under the door. We smelled pine.
“When you smell pine,” he said, gesturing, by way of a conclusion, toward a wooden wreck behind him, so mangled that it was hard to tell where tree ended and house began.
Some opened the closet to the open sky, where their roof had been, some yelled until other family members pulled the shelves and walls off them. Others never got out.
Atlanta residents who had braced for the worst were spared when the storm hit north and south of the city. Across Georgia, many schools in rural areas sustained so much damage they will close for the rest of the year.
In Mississippi, the carnage was worst in the piney hill country in the northeastern part of the state. Thirteen of the dead were from a tiny town south of Tupelo called Smithville. Most of the buildings in Smithville, which has a population of less than 800, were gone.
“It looks to be pretty much devastated,” said Brent Carr, a spokesman for the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency.
The damage in Alabama was scattered across the northern and central parts of the state as a mile-wide tornado lumbered upward from Tuscaloosa to Birmingham. More than 1,700 people have been examined or treated at local hospitals, according to officials at the Alabama Hospital Association.
The deaths were scattered around the state: six in the small town of Arab, 14 in urban Jefferson County.
More than a million people in Alabama, Mississippi and Tennessee were left without power, with much of the loss caused by severe damage to transmitters at the Browns Ferry Nuclear Plant west of Huntsville, Ala. The plant itself was not damaged, but the dozens of poles that carry electricity to local power companies were down.
“We have no place to send the power at this point,” said Scott Brooks, a spokesman for the Tennessee Valley Authority, which sells electricity to companies in seven states. “We're not talking hours, we're talking days.”
In Tuscaloosa, Governor Bentley, a Republican, made it clear that Alabama would need substantial federal assistance.
“We're going to have to have help from the federal government in order to get through this in an expeditious way,” he said.
Mr. Fugate, the FEMA administrator, emphasized in a number of appearances that the agency's job at this stage was to play “a support role” to the states in recovery efforts, not to lead them. “Everybody wants to know who's in charge. I can tell you this. Alabama's governor is in charge. We're in support,” he said.
The University of Alabama campus here was mostly spared, said Robert E. Witt, the president, but about 70 students with no other place to stay spent the night in the recreation center on campus. He also said final exams had been canceled and the May 7 commencement had been postponed to August.
Along with the swath of destruction it cut through Tuscaloosa, the tornado smashed up the town's capacity to recover. The headquarters of the county emergency management agency was badly damaged, as well as the city's fleet of garbage trucks.
At Rosedale Court, a low-income housing project, large crowds of former residents walked aimlessly back and forth in front of the mangled buildings where they had woken up the day before. A door-to-door search was continuing.
Three women approached Willie Fort, the assistant director of the authority, and asked why the residents were just milling around the destruction and not moving on to shelters. Mr. Fort urged patience.
“When folks lose everything they just looking and holding on,” he said to the women. “Everything's gone. Their cars are gone. Everything. These people ain't got nothing.”
Campbell Robertson reported from Tuscaloosa, and Kim Severson from Atlanta. Kevin Sack contributed reporting from Tuscaloosa, and Robbie Brown from Birmingham, Ala.
This article “Obama Tours Wreckage of Deadly Storm” originally appeared at The New York Times.