Day of prayer as US south mourns tornado victims
Tuscaloosa, Alabama (AFP) May 1, 2011
Grieving storm survivors turned to prayer and the good grace of volunteers Sunday across the US south as shattered communities looked to rebuild after the second-worst tornado disaster on record.
Churches from Mississippi to Virginia flung open their doors for prayers, some in the very houses of worship destroyed by powerful tornadoes that claimed nearly 350 lives on Wednesday.
"This is the Bible Belt. Church goes on regardless," Tennessee Emergency Management Agency spokesman Jeremy Heidt told AFP.
In hardest-hit Alabama, where Governor Robert Bentley declared a state-wide day of prayer, the faithful gathered under open skies, in parking lots and church sites on the first Sunday since the historic disaster wiped several of their churches off the map.
In the town of Phil Campbell, congregants erected a makeshift wooden cross and sang hymns on the concrete slab where the Church of God once stood, before some of the most powerful tornadoes on record left it and thousands of homes and businesses in splinters.
In the devastated town of Smithville, Mississippi -- population 900 -- the Church of Christ has been converted into a food, clothing and medicine distribution center, and the congregation gathered outside for a short open-air service.
"We're just going to remember the dead and buried by taking the Lord's supper, and give of our means. People come together when the need arises," said church elder Danny Stephenson, 62.
"Of our six churches, four of them is gone," he said. Sixteen of 18 Smithville businesses were demolished by the killer twisters. "There ain't nothing left. Just wiped clean, like you took a bulldozer to it all."
Like communities across the battered region, neighbors helped neighbors in Smithville, and volunteers conducted search and rescue, cooked meals for victims, and helped haul debris.
"The whole town has come together," Stephenson said. "And I've talked to one family, they're going to rebuild right where they're at."
President Barack Obama, who signed disaster declarations for Alabama and parts of Georgia, Mississippi and Tennessee, dispatched cabinet members including Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano to tour the destruction in Birmingham, Alabama, where they spoke with survivors and assured expanded federal aid to help communities recover and rebuild.
The American Red Cross has opened 16 shelters across Alabama, taking in about 900 of the newly homeless, the organization announced.
Obama reiterated his pledge to help the region recover.
"It's going to be a long road back and so we need to keep those Americans in our thoughts and in our prayers," Obama said late Saturday. "We also need to stand with them in the hard months and perhaps years to come."
But the scope of the devastation was almost unimaginable, particularly in Tuscaloosa, where Mayor Walter Maddox said 5,731 building have been destroyed or badly damaged and more than 400 people remained unaccounted for, although he acknowledged several of those were likely staying with relatives.
The death toll in Alabama stood at 250 on Sunday, with another 2,219 people injured.
Mississippi has confirmed 35 deaths, and its emergency management agency touched on the scope of the disaster in reporting 993 homes destroyed and another 2,527 damaged in the state.
There were also 34 deaths in Tennessee, 15 in Georgia, eight in Arkansas and five in Virginia.
The overall death toll of 347 is exceeded only by a tornado outbreak in March 1925 that left 747 people dead.
Search and rescue teams were moving into smaller communities that didn't get immediate attention after the storms, and they are coming upon more destruction, said Yasamie August, an Alabama emergency management spokeswoman.
"We are still finding complete subdivisions and homes completely leveled. It is very devastating to see," she said.
Fire and rescue teams were going door to door, some with cadaver dogs, in the poor Tuscaloosa neighborhood of Alberta City, where blocks of low-income housing were left in ruins and residents were seen painstakingly combing through the rubble.
Several aid groups had already set up in the region, including the Salvation Army, a faith-based humanitarian group that has established 40 mobile feeding units, providing 20,000 warm meals per day.
"Sometimes a cup of water or coffee or a hot meal reminds people that someone cares for them and loves them and is there to help meet their needs," the Salvation Army's Mark Jones told AFP.
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