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In eastern Alabama, communities reel from tornado’s ‘annihilation’

Officials have released the names of 23 people confirmed dead from a tornado that hit Lee County, Alabama, on Sunday. Rescue efforts are winding down, though many residents will face a long road to recovery after losing homes and livelihoods to the 170 mile-per-hour winds. John Yang reports and Judy Woodruff talks to Mayor F.L. “Bubba” Copeland of Smiths Station, one of the hardest hit areas.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The search for tornado victims is winding down tonight in Eastern Alabama. Now survivors in Beauregard and other communities face a long road to recovery, after Sunday's twister blasted the region with winds of 170 miles an hour.

    John Yang begins our coverage.

  • John Yang:

    Across Lee County, Alabama, residents are coming to grips with lives lost or forever changed in an instant.

  • Angela Locascio:

    Feeling like you have to start all over, like everything you worked hard for was gone.

  • John Yang:

    Angela Locascio is grateful she and her family survived the nation's deadliest tornado in six years.

  • Angela Locascio:

    Wondering why. But we know we can't predict the weather. And we just got out of harm's way. Luckily, we were one of the lucky ones that got out. I had some friends and family and co-workers that didn't make it out.

  • John Yang:

    Today, authorities released the names of the 23 known victims. Seven came from a single family. The oldest victim was 89 years old. The youngest, Armando "A.J." Hernandez, was just 6.

  • Woman:

    There's been loss of loved ones, God. There's been loss of homes, lord.

  • John Yang:

    At Lee Scott Academy in Auburn this morning, the community united in prayer for another young life lost, 10-year-old Taylor Thornton, a student at the school.

    Carol Dean sat in what's left of the home she shared with her husband, David Wayne Dean. It's also where he died.

  • Carol Dean:

    I really can't describe. He's just — it was just a special bond. He completed me, and I completed him. He was the reason I lived, the reason that I got up.

  • John Yang:

    Officials say the search for more victims is winding down and heavy equipment will be hauling away the debris.

  • Kathy Carson:

    This has been an ordeal for all of us, but I'm going to tell you, I think the people here and the people who have come to help us have performed admirably.

  • John Yang:

    As survivors prepare to bury the dead, and rebuild shattered lives.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm John Yang.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Joining me on the phone now is Mayor Bubba Copeland of Smiths Station, Alabama. It's a community just east of Beauregard that is now grappling with this tornado's devastating aftermath.

    Mayor Copeland, thank you very much for talking with us.

    Tell us how your community was affected.

  • Bubba Copeland:

    We have a town of 5,000, but a township of 22,000 that represents the greater populace of Smiths Station.

    It's a 27-mile-long tornado. It was about two football fields wide, 170-mile-per-hour winds. It — everything in its path pretty much was destroyed. It's hard to put into words, besides the fact that I have never been in a war zone, but I have seen a war zone, and it's very familiar, just total annihilation.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    It's extraordinary that you didn't have loss of life.

  • Bubba Copeland:

    The lord really blessed us. And it's unbelievable. It's a miracle. We had two injuries, but they were not life-threatening.

    If you were here, you would be even more amazed than you would be just by saying it, just to see the destruction of houses and homes and mobile homes. We're just so lucky and so blessed to not have any loss of life.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    How are you helping the people who have lost their homes and lost everything they have, or a lot of it?

  • Bubba Copeland:

    Well, you know, down in the Deep South, we are great a country of people who come together.

    And what has happened is, is 15 minutes after this storm come through, people just show up everywhere like angels. They just come and they volunteer. Today, we had people from South Carolina, Florida, Georgia, North Carolina. They just drove down with heavy equipment and began just clearing people's houses, yards away, so people can actually get out of their houses and get to where they could go to the store or what have you.

    We also organized an effort with EMA. Also, Red Cross is here, as well as the Alabama Forestry Commission is here. The Alabama National Guard is here. Tomorrow, we're expecting FEMA to come, hopefully, if the president declares an emergency, and they will come in and help us rebuild.

    Right now, we're organizing our efforts. But the community is pulling together. And we're trying to help people get the clothes they need. We have fire stations that are open for showers and clothes, and we have churches that are coming in and feeding people that don't have food.

    A lot of people can't get out, so we're taking food to where they're at.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    How do you process, Mayor Copeland, that just, what, as we said, 15 miles away in Beauregard, where there was, what, 23 people at least died, how do you process that it had that impact there, but your community, even though there was a lot of damage, was spared in terms of loss of life?

  • Bubba Copeland:

    Our hearts go out to the Beauregard community. They're part of Lee County. We're all part of Lee County, Alabama.

    And our hearts are so heavy for them, with three children being lost and whole families being lost. Words can't describe the sadness. This is a very, very sad day in Lee County.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, our hearts go out to all of you, certainly to them, and to everyone who has experienced a loss in your community.

    Mayor Bubba Copeland of Smiths Station, Alabama, thank you very much for talking with us.

  • Bubba Copeland:

    Thank you. It's an honor. Thank you.

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