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Ala., Miss.,Tornado Victims Struggle to Cope With Worst Storm Damage in Decades

April 29, 2011 at 5:15 PM EDT
President Obama traveled to Alabama to meet with tornado victims and tour the devastation left by the Wednesday storms. Ray Suarez discusses the latest conditions and the search-and-rescue efforts with Tuscaloosa Mayor Walter Maddox and the National Weather Service's Jack Hayes.
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JEFFREY BROWN: The tornado death count across the South hit 318 today. That made it the deadliest outbreak of twisters since 1932.

Alabama alone had well over 200 deaths, and the president flew there to see the disaster firsthand.

Ray Suarez has the story.

MAN: I know all this does compare — doesn’t compare to life, because life is so precious. And I have another chance. We have another chance.

RAY SUAREZ: In the stricken city of Tuscaloosa, Ala., today, survivors sought comfort just in the knowledge they lived through Wednesday night’s disaster. The view from overhead showed damage almost beyond comprehension. A few cars on a rare passable road were the only thing recognizable.

Some people trickled back to what had been their homes, searching for pieces of their lives.

MAN: And it was less than five minutes. It’s just gone.

WOMAN: It was unbelievable. This is still not real to me.

WOMAN: You just don’t think this is going to happen to you, for some reason. You know, you — you just don’t.

RAY SUAREZ: Equally staggering, the still rising numbers of dead. One town pleaded for more body bags, and rescuers and survivors kept searching for those still missing.

WOMAN: Justin!

WOMAN: Justin!

MAN: I don’t think he made it. I don’t think he made it. But we need confirmation of that.

RAY SUAREZ: President and Mrs. Obama saw it all for themselves as they arrived in Tuscaloosa this morning.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I have got to say, I have never seen devastation like this. It is heartbreaking.

RAY SUAREZ: The Obamas viewed the damage with Alabama’s governor, Robert Bentley, and Tuscaloosa’s mayor, Walt Maddox. And they visited a damaged school now being used as an aid distribution center and met with now-homeless residents.

BARACK OBAMA: I want to just make a commitment to the communities here that we are going to do everything we can to help these communities rebuild. We can’t bring those who have been lost back. They’re alongside God at this point.

RAY SUAREZ: The governor called out more than 2,000 National Guard troops to help with recovery and security. But the task of rebuilding promised to be long and costly.

One tornado alone left a path at least 175 miles long. In and around Birmingham, rescuers picked through splintered neighborhoods today, as authorities mobilized to clean up and rebuild. The suburban town of Concord was all but obliterated. The police department sealed off the area from gawkers, so residents could retrieve whatever they could find.

Residents in nearby Pratt City said they were in desperate need.

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

RAY SUAREZ: And in Pleasant Grove, where nine people died…

MAN: Pleasant Grove will never be the same. Never will be.

WOMAN: You get to a point in your life where you feel like you’re settled and you don’t have to worry about anything, and then now you have got to start over. So, yes, it’s disappointing.

RAY SUAREZ: Nearly one million people across the state also had to cope with the loss of power, water and communications. Desperate drivers hunted for fuel for cars and generators after power outages forced many gas stations to close.

Some drove across the state line into Maury County, Tenn. But help was on the way. Volunteers in Andalusia, Ala., loaded three tractor trailers with water and other relief supplies. And convoys of power trucks departed from Florida and from as far away as Kansas to help get the lights back on.

Meanwhile, Mississippi struggled to cope with sweeping destruction in towns like Smithville. Gov. Haley Barbour toured there.

GOV. HALEY BARBOUR, R-Miss.: The great need here is for us to have the capacity to unravel all of this debris, to see if we have lost any more citizens. And that’s going to take a little time. And then we will start cleaning up and rebuilding. I can tell you, Smithville is — they’re champing at the bit to get started cleaning up and rebuilding.

RAY SUAREZ: The National Weather Service reported the tornado that hit Smithville had winds of 205 miles an hour, the most power to hit the state since 1966.

Even tombstones from the 1800s were ripped up and knocked aside. And the roll call of disaster continued across the South in Tennessee.

WOMAN: You wake up. You see everything you worked for and how long it took you, and it’s all gone.

MAN: Yes, about 10 seconds, it’s gone.

RAY SUAREZ: And in northern Georgia, where dozens of homes were damaged or destroyed.

We get the latest on the city hit hardest by the storms. At least 42 people were killed and roughly 900 were injured after a tornado ripped through Tuscaloosa, Ala.

Mayor Walter Maddox described what happened as a nightmare.

He joins me now.

Mayor, do you still have a large number of missing, so that number of missing and dead may still yet rise?

WALTER MADDOX, mayor of Tuscaloosa, Ala.: Right now, we know of 45 confirmed deaths within the city of Tuscaloosa and our police jurisdiction.

We have 990 that have been reported injured as a result of Wednesday’s tornado. And we have got scores of people missing, though we think most of that is due to miscommunication and not necessarily being part of the debris field.

RAY SUAREZ: So, there is still hope that they may turn up somewhere else?

WALTER MADDOX: We hope so.

One of the issues that we have — we encountered is you get calls into multiple sources looking for someone. Cell towers are down. Power has been out. So, you are dealing with issues of trying to be accountable for someone.

In terms of who we think are missing, that number is going to — in terms of do we think we have any more fatalities out in the debris field, we were able to do major sweeps today with different sets of cadaver dogs. And thank God we didn’t have anyone today that we found.

RAY SUAREZ: Along with that terrible loss of life and the number of injured, in the last 48 hours, have you had a chance to really take a count of what your city has lost?

WALTER MADDOX: We have lost a 5.9-mile stretch of our city with widths of a half-mile to a mile wide. It is utter destruction.

As I told the president, this is a nightmare. Not only have we lost such a large part of our city, which we are about 100,000. We lost our environmental services fleet. It’s gone. Our Emergency Management Agency, which handles disaster, blown away. Our fleet of garbage trucks, trash trucks obliterated.

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. But the good news is, is that our heart may be broken. Our souls are strong. With the work of the governor and the president, we’re — we’re going to make it through this crisis, somehow, some way.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, you mentioned that the president was on hand, along with your governor and your United States senator, walking through the town with you today. What kind of help is on tap, and what do you need?

WALTER MADDOX: Well, what we — we need two things from the federal government. We’re going to need reimbursements for the millions, probably tens of millions we’re going to spend in this cleanup effort.

And the second thing is we’re going to need help finding homes for all those that have lost. The direct tornado track, those that were directly in the path of the tornado numbered over 6,000. Those that are in the damaged track of the tornado numbered over 15,000.

You are talking about one-seventh of your city was touched or damaged during the course of this tornado. We’re going to need those state and federal resources to cope with this crisis.

On the housing issue, if we can’t get some quick solutions to that, we’re going to be facing a humanitarian crisis in the weeks to come.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, what did the president tell you today?

WALTER MADDOX: The president told us, number one, that he’s going to get the full backing of FEMA. And I believe it.

He was engaged, intense, and committed to helping the people of Tuscaloosa recover. He also suggested ways that we can coordinate through HUD, so that not only do we rebuild. We rebuild better. We begin with first-time homebuyer programs. We provide incentives for small businesses. And the federal government has the resources and the capacity to make that happen.

RAY SUAREZ: When you have got so many people with so many needs over such a wide area, how do phase this thing? What’s job one? And has it already started?

WALTER MADDOX: Job one is search and recovery. And that is making sure that everyone is accounted for.

Job two, we’re going to be phasing in tomorrow. And that’s cleaning the debris. We’re going to try to get on — we’re working through volunteers to begin getting on private property, like you see behind me, so we can begin getting that cleaned up.

And beginning mid next week, we start with public roads and right-of-ways. We have got one-seventh of our city, a large city here in Alabama, that is literally shut down. And right now, our efforts feel like we’re throwing rocks against a battleship, because of the enormity of this. But we’re going to make progress, hour by hour, day by day and week by week.

RAY SUAREZ: This has been called one of the worst natural disasters in the United States since Hurricane Katrina.

Now, we know, these many years later, New Orleans still is not the city that it was before Katrina hit. When you look at the extent of the damage in Tuscaloosa, can you can see that it’s going to be many years before your city is what it was at the beginning of this week?

WALTER MADDOX: It could be many years.

But what we’re focused on is, today, let’s find everyone, make sure they are accounted for. And tomorrow, we begin the process of moving this debris, slowly but surely.

But I will bet you this. The resilient spirit of our citizens has been on display for the world to see. And when Tuscaloosa is rebuilt, it’s going to be better than it was before. We’re not going to let the 45 individuals who passed away in this storm die in vain. And we’re committed to doing everything we can to building a better tomorrow for this region.

RAY SUAREZ: Did it make a difference to have the president there? In the midst of all this terrible event and the real losses, the catastrophic losses in people’s lives, here suddenly is one of the most famous people in the world. Were people bucked up by that?

WALTER MADDOX: I only picked up part of your question.

But it has been a catastrophic loss of life. It’s going to be difficult — it’s difficult for us to even imagine that 45 people on Wednesday morning went to work, fed their children, did what we do every day, and then got caught up in this terrible tragedy. That is going to be a constant reminder to me every hour of the day that we are going to work tirelessly to rebuild this city, so that their family members, their friends can see their legacy from now on.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, Mr. Mayor, our condolences on your terrible loss. And good luck with everything you have to do.

WALTER MADDOX: Thank you very much.

RAY SUAREZ: As it turns out, April has been the one of the worst months for recorded deaths from tornadoes in this country’s history.

It’s prompting many questions. And I asked some of them a short time ago to the director of the National Weather Service, Jack Hayes.

Jack Hayes, welcome.

What’s happening in the upper atmosphere to cause what, for some parts of the country, are the worst storms in nearly 80 years?

JACK HAYES, National Weather Service: Well, I would say, Ray, it’s both upper atmosphere and lower atmosphere.

And if I might start with the lower atmosphere, what we had this past week was a prolonged period of southerly flow off the Gulf bringing warm, humid air into the southern tier of the United States, east of the Mississippi River.

If you combine that with a strong jet stream that originated up in the Canadian region, and you bring that into juxtaposition, you focus the energy and then you have a triggering mechanism with the heat and the frontal system that was slowly moving across that set off the outbreak that we saw that went from Arkansas, all the way to Georgia, and up into Virginia.

RAY SUAREZ: Are there any variables that make one year relatively calm and another one catastrophic?

JACK HAYES: That’s really the $64 question.

I think 2008, we saw nearly 1,800 tornadoes. And then, the very next year, when we were all prepared for an active season, we saw far less than that. So, you are going to see a natural variability from year-to-year. It’s an area, I think, prime for research to understand what causes one year to be active and one year not.

RAY SUAREZ: Can you can use observed patterns, the history of other years and look at the beginning of a spring and say, oh, this looks like it’s shaping up to be a bad one?

JACK HAYES: We do do that. We have a Climate Prediction Center that attempts to look at seasonal prediction.

In some areas where we have strong signals, La Nina or El Nino, we can find statistical correlation, and we can provide an outlook. I think this spring in particular, we were alerting the northern tier of the United States as early as November, December that we expected March and early April floods. And you’re seeing that Red River with the North now, the Ohio River Valley, up even as far as New York.

RAY SUAREZ: Do you have to be careful when warning people not to get into “The Boy Who Cried Wolf” syndrome, if you see some variables meshing in a certain way, sending them to their basements, and then having nothing happen?

JACK HAYES: Absolutely.

We monitor our false alarm ratio. I will tell you, though, if we’re sitting on the fence and we see a threat, the philosophy that we have espoused in our policies, the culture we have tried to create in our weather forecast offices is one that says, I would rather push the button on the warning and protect Americans, have them go to basements, and save a life, as opposed to miss an event.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, we have had this terrible record in April. Do we know what May holds? Can we look at whether patterns and say it’s going to be continue to be a turbulent spring?

JACK HAYES: I think that that is where our skill — you’re pushing our skill to the max.

I think our outlook says that expect an active May. Traditionally, May is our most active month. And it does concern us, the large number of tornadoes that we have seen in the month of April. We had a record-setting season in 2004. We have had 835 tornadoes already this year. The record-setting season was 1,817 in 2004.

And with May being typically the most active month, the question I think we have to ask ourselves, are we going to have a record-setting year in 2011?

RAY SUAREZ: A scientist at the National Severe Storms Laboratory in Norman, Okla., said there is a pretty good chance that some of these storms, the tornadoes, were a mile-wide on the ground for tens of miles and had wind speeds over 200 miles an hour.

Now, normally tornadoes are bad, but they’re not nearly that bad. What makes them so powerful this time around?

JACK HAYES: Well, I think the prolonged fetch of warm, humid air from the Gulf certainly set in place some of the factors, the presence of the strong jet stream.

So, you had a very unstable atmosphere over a broad area for a prolonged period of time. And then, when we triggered it, it is — it is certainly abnormal to see the kinds of tornadoes we saw, but it is not unheard of. We have had — we have one confirmed report of an EF-5 tornado.

And that does say over 200-mile-per-hour winds. We have had those before, Kansas, Oklahoma. So, they do occur. They are rare. When they occur, they tend to be well-defined features and stay on the ground for a period of time.

RAY SUAREZ: Do we have better technology for getting at least a little more notice of when things are going to be that bad?

JACK HAYES: Absolutely. In fact, I — I will say we have geostationary satellites. We have polar orbiting satellites.

Five days before these storms hit the South, we picked up enough conditions out over the Gulf with our polar orbiting satellites that our models were able to run and project into the future. We let communities know three days before that there was a moderate risk of a very threatening tornadic situation occurring across the area that was hit.

The midnight before the event occurred, we raised that to a high risk. So, that was over 12 hours before the first thunderstorm formed in Mississippi, Alabama, Arkansas.

And so, the technology that we have, satellites, radars — we have a Doppler radar that we put in place in the late ’80s, early 1990s that allow us to see inside the storms and see circulations begin to form before tornadoes actually form.

RAY SUAREZ: Jack Hayes, the director of the National Weather Services, thanks for joining us.

JACK HAYES: Thank you.