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Snow, Cold Hinder Midwest’s Recovery Efforts After Tornadoes

March 5, 2012 at 12:00 AM EST
The National Weather Service confirmed 51 tornadoes across 11 states from Friday into early Saturday, from the Great Lakes spreading south of the Gulf Coast and as far east as Georgia and the Carolinas. Hari Sreenivasan reports on cleanup efforts in Indiana that have been slowed by Monday's snow and low temperatures.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight, the aftermath of Friday’s extreme tornado outbreak in the Midwest and South. Snow and cold hampered recovery and cleanup efforts today.

Hari Sreenivasan has the story.

Our colleagues at WTIU in Bloomington, Indiana, contributed to this report.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The snow fell overnight in Henryville, Indiana, leaving a blanket white over the tornado wreckage of homes and cars and adding new misery to what’s left of the town of 2,000 people.

Rhonda Bittorff was one of the survivors.

RHONDA BITTORFF, tornado survivor: It has hindered it quite a bit because there’s lots of people who still need tarps on their roof. But, of course, you can’t get on the roof to do that. You know, that — it’s too dangerous.

So, hopefully — the sun is coming out now. I have already seen a lot of the snow is starting to melt. So, hopefully through the — you know, through the day, that maybe they will be able to get some more things done. We just continue to, you know, pick things up, make sure that everybody has their most urgent needs met, make sure that they’re — if we can get electric and — and water and those kinds of basic supplies to people, so that they can stay in their houses because some people are not going to leave their homes.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The tornado that hit Henryville on Friday was the worst of a deadly day, ripping into the towns with winds of 175 miles an hour.

MAN: Get back. There it is. It’s coming over the hill.

Do we need to jump in the car?

MAN: Yes, jump in the car.

MAN: Go on! Go! Get out! Get out!

MAN: Oh, my God.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The storm system cut an especially violent swathe across parts of Indiana, Kentucky and Ohio, nearly wiping out the towns of hen Henryville, New Pekin, and Marysville in Indiana, and West Liberty in Kentucky.

Thirty-nine people died in the onslaught across five states. In Indiana, 15-month-old Angel Babcock had seemingly been a miracle survival. She was found clinging to life in a field behind her home in New Pekin after the storm that took the lives of both her parents and two siblings. But, overnight, her condition deteriorated, and she was taken off life support.

In all, the National Weather Service confirmed 51 tornadoes across 11 states on Friday and into early Saturday, from the Great Lakes spreading south of the Gulf Coast and as far east as Georgia and the Carolinas. At one point, as many as four million people were within 25 miles of a tornado.

The widespread devastation meant a huge cleanup job, whether it was using bulldozers to clear cars and vans or trying to restore power. Utility crews worked through the weekend. And about 2,700 customers remained in the dark in Indiana, down from a peak of 8,000.

A drive through Henryville today showed the scope of destruction, with block after block leveled. But people began returning over the weekend to pick through the rubble.

WOMAN: I am so glad that everyone is okay. I’m glad that not only my family is okay, that other people’s families are OK. I’m so sorry for the ones that lost family members and everyone else who lost their home.

HARI SREENIVASAN: And Indiana’s Gov. Mitch Daniels toured the stricken towns on Saturday, praising the resilience he saw.

GOV. MITCH DANIELS, R-Ind.: As always, when things are at their worst, the people in this state are at their best.

HARI SREENIVASAN: And other states as well. Supplies and donations from around the country poured in over the weekend. Today, volunteers from Denver unloaded fresh drinking water and other supplies.

MAN: It’s not — actually, snow, rain, heat, flood, it doesn’t really matter. We will do as much as we can to help out.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Much of the aid went to hundreds of people now living in shelters.

WOMAN: This storm, the tornado took it all, took it all away from us.

WOMAN: You know, sometimes, you think that the world is not necessarily a good place to live, and then you find out it still is.

HARI SREENIVASAN: In Kentucky, virtually every structure in the town of West Liberty was gone. And on Main Street, almost every building had to be condemned, the town hall, bank, courthouse, and police station.

Most of the residents there were in shelters as well. And, as in Henryville, survivors in West Liberty were helping each other start over again.

MAN: Feel so helpless. We have got to do something.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Despite all the devastation, a story of hope emerged from North Carolina. Three children who survived being sucked from their beds by a tornado early on Saturday were released from a Charlotte hospital on Sunday.

MAN: They looked at them and they couldn’t believe it.

MAN: They called them miracle babies.

WOMAN: Yes.

MAN: They called them miracle babies.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Forecasters blame the unusually early outbreaks of tornadoes in part on an especially warm winter. The National Weather Service said preliminary estimates suggest Friday’s wave of storms could become the largest outbreak on record for the month of March.