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Birmingham Police Chief: Alabamians in Shock, Despair After Major Storm

April 28, 2011 at 5:26 PM EDT
The nation's worst outbreak of tornadoes in nearly 40 years devastated large parts of the South on Wednesday night. Nearly 300 people were killed in six states, and two major cities were hit in Alabama. Jeffery Brown gets an on-the-ground account of the destruction from A.C. Roper, police chief of Birmingham, Ala.

JEFFREY BROWN: Much of the South was left reeling today after the nation’s worst outbreak of tornadoes in nearly 40 years. At least 280 people were killed in six states during Wednesday night’s barrage. That included more than 190 dead in Alabama, where two major cities were hit.

It was just after dinnertime Wednesday when a terrifying sight transfixed the people of Tuscaloosa, a tornado nearly a mile wide that blasted its way across the city.

MAN: Goodness. Look at that.

MAN: That is huge.

JEFFREY BROWN: The massive funnel cloud was spawned by a vast system of violent weather. It spun off severe storms and tornadoes that plowed furrows of destruction from Mississippi to northwest Georgia to Virginia.

MAN: Oh, my God. This is amazing.

JEFFREY BROWN: The Tuscaloosa twister tore through a city of 83,000 people, leaving in its wake entire neighborhoods wiped off the map.

MAN: Yes. That was the front of the house.

JEFFREY BROWN: By this morning, shell-shocked residents were out, trying to take stock.

WOMAN: I couldn’t get up. I was having to move stuff off of me. And I got up. And this is what I woke up to.

MAN: Pieces of our house scattered all over two or three counties, I think. But like I said, we’re alive.

JEFFREY BROWN: Some were transfixed by the wreckage that was once their homes, now splintered into piles of debris. Others began picking their away around to gather up what they could.

And rescuers did their best to pull survivors from the rubble, including this young girl who was found under a pile of bricks. But officials said scores of people were still missing.

WOMAN: We heard a moan coming under there, but they ain’t moving the stuff, so we can get through there. Her kids, her kids, they don’t know where she is at. She has been missing since yesterday.

JEFFREY BROWN: The twister did only minor damage to the University of Alabama campus, narrowly missing the school’s football stadium.

But many businesses were left unrecognizable. And streets were impassable, littered with trees, pieces of houses and overturned cars. Tuscaloosa’s mayor said the city now faces a cleanup beyond imagining.

WALTER MADDOX, mayor of Tuscaloosa, Ala.: This is going to be a very, very long process. The amount of damage that is seen is beyond a nightmare. I don’t know if I have ever seen in — in my — in my life, anything as destructive and as tragic as what has transpired in Tuscaloosa.

JEFFREY BROWN: Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley, a native of Tuscaloosa, declared a state of emergency and called out 1,400 National Guard members.

GOV. ROBERT BENTLEY, R-Ala.: We’re going to get through this, because the people of Alabama are resilient. They care about each other. And we’re going to get through this. And we’re going to come out better on the other side.

JEFFREY BROWN: Elsewhere, just north of Birmingham, half of the courthouse roof was ripped away in the town of Cullman. Trees and power lines were down, and officials said it could take several days for crews to fully restore power.

WOMAN: Oh, my gracious. There is no way of me every even imagining how much of a loss.

JEFFREY BROWN: Statewide, nearly a million people lost power. The storm even forced the Browns Ferry nuclear power plant near Huntsville to shut down its three units because of damage to transmission lines. There was no damage to the plant itself.

President Obama declared Alabama would be eligible for federal emergency aid. He planned to visit the state on Friday to view the damage firsthand.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We can’t control when or where a terrible storm may strike. But we can control how we respond to it. And I want every American who has been affected by this disaster to know that the federal government will do everything we can to help you recover and we will stand with you as you rebuild.

JEFFREY BROWN: Mississippi was also hit hard, with more than 30 dead. A surveillance camera in Collins, in the southern part of the state, captured the force of high winds tearing the roof off a warehouse.

And in Smithville in the northeast, the police station, post office and city hall were among dozens of buildings that were badly damaged.

GREGG KENNEDY, mayor of Smithville, Miss.: We grabbed our quilt and our personal belongings and we went into the boardroom and got under the board table. And when it was over with everything was gone.

JEFFREY BROWN: In all, the National Weather Service fielded reports of at least 137 tornadoes across six states, also leaving heavy damage in Tennessee, where more than 30 people were killed, Kentucky, Virginia and Georgia, where more than a dozen others died.

MAN: Tore it all to pieces, blew it up.

MAN: Started seeing shingles coming off the roof, stuff flying around. I grabbed hold to the porch and the porch was lifting off. I thought I was gone.

JEFFREY BROWN: The loss of life was the worst since an outbreak of tornadoes killed 315 people in 1974. And there have now been 600-plus tornadoes reported in the month of April, a new record.

And now to Alabama’s largest city, Birmingham, where at least 26 people were killed. More than 170,000 people there are without power tonight.

A.C. Roper is the city’s police chief. He joins me now.

And thank you so much for joining us.

Chief Roper, what’s the situation there now? What are you seeing as you move around your city this evening?

A.C. ROPER, police chief of Birmingham, Ala.: Well, we’re reaching a point of stability. We have a lot of work to do, but our primary priority was search and rescue. So searching these destroyed homes hand to hand, going in the rubble, pulling people out of the rubble. We even rescued two babies, one that was trapped in a crib when the house fell down on top of the baby.

That has been our priority. We’re getting through it, but we still have a lot of work to do.

JEFFREY BROWN: You’re going house-to-house. Is it — is it your sense that there still are people missing there?

A.C. ROPER: We do believe there are people that are still missing. We’re getting reports of loved ones who can’t be located. Family members are searching the shelters. So we have established a hot line where these family members can call, give their loved ones’ names, give us that address, so we can go back to that address and try to use heavy equipment to get in that rubble and make sure their loved ones aren’t trapped.

JEFFREY BROWN: I just wonder from — on a personal basis, have you ever seen anything like this, what you went through last night?

A.C. ROPER: No sir, not here in Birmingham.

But as an Army Reservist I deployed to Homestead down in Miami after Hurricane Andrew. And so I have seen something similar of a greater capacity. But here in Birmingham, it’s a form of destruction that we haven’t seen for a while.

JEFFREY BROWN: And often when we — when we hear about tornadoes, you hear that one side of the street is — is torn apart; the other side is OK.

As you walk around your city streets, is that what you are seeing, or is this a wider path of destruction?

A.C. ROPER: It’s a wider path of destruction, but yet, we’re seeing those idiosyncrasies. We’re seeing five houses destroyed, but there is one that was right in the center that is still standing.

I have seen a house where the roof was gone, two of the walls were gone, but the bed was still sitting there, made up, with the spread still intact, which is amazing, that the force of the wind could destroy the house, but leave the bed intact. So we’re seeing those types of strange occurrences that normally occur with a tornado.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, what about the people you’re meeting? Are they in shock? Are they able to gather themselves? Are they able to work together to help one another?

A.C. ROPER: Well, we’re seeing people with that look of loss and despair. We’re there to give them hope.

We are encouraged by the fact that we have so many people who are giving, who are serving, who are bringing food and water out. And so, together we’re getting through it. But we do see that look of shock, as people take inventory of their lives and all of their earthly possessions have been destroyed.

JEFFREY BROWN: And what is being done for those who have lost their homes? Are there places for them to go?

A.C. ROPER: Yes, sir. We have established a shelter here in downtown Birmingham.

We’re also opening a relief center tomorrow right there in the area that has been destroyed as a point of distribution for food, water, clothing. It will be staffed by volunteers and several members of the faith community. So people are rising to the occasion like they normally do in a time of crisis.

JEFFREY BROWN: How much warning was there for people when all this happened? I understood you had sort of a sense all day that things were — were coming.

But when it really came, how much warning, how much time was there for people to react?

A.C. ROPER: Well, we had several hours but the strange part was, we had one line of storms that came through that morning. And so, once that line of storms came through some people might have gotten a sense of calm.

But there were still warnings that were enacted that another line was coming that could be more severe. And when that line hit some people followed the proper procedures and went to the basements and all of that. But there were some others who took it for granted. And those were the ones we were rescuing.

JEFFREY BROWN: So the search continues and you have people going to shelters. Do you have all the resources — resources you need? What — what are the greatest needs there right now?

A.C. ROPER: Well the greatest need for us as a police department is additional personnel. We have about 150 officers on the scene right now.

We will be supplemented by the National Guard. We’re expecting another 200 to 300 National Guardsmen to show up this evening that we will fold into our security plan. And they will really help us tomorrow as we sort of shift our priorities of effort. We will still be searching. We have opened primary roads, but we will be opening secondary roads.

We will be trying to clear additional debris, so that hopefully, the utility companies can start getting in there in the next day or two and start really assessing the situation and trying to restore some sense of calm and some sense of power and gas services.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Police Chief A.C. Roper of Birmingham, Ala., thanks so much for joining us. And all our best to you.