Picking Up The Pieces After Deadly Tornadoes
NEAL CONAN, host:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.
Spring storms are nothing new. A nasty line of thunderstorms and tornadoes hit the Midwest and the South last week. But yesterday was something else.
Dozens of tornadoes savaged parts of the South and Southeast. One tore through the heart of Alabama. Entire blocks and neighborhoods were reduced to splinters.
Hundreds lost their lives. Rescue teams continue to search for survivors. Power is out for hundreds of thousands. Damage estimates are already in the billions. In Alabama, the governor called out the National Guard, and emergency weather warnings are issued from New York to Texas.
If you got caught up in the storms, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email email@example.com. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Later in the program, the ruthless traffic of women and girls for the sex trade, and if you tuned in to hear our conversation with Jacki Lyden about her series on recovery from prostitution, we've had to move that back for our coverage of yesterday's storms.
Let's begin with a caller, and we'll start with Matt, Matt with us from Tuscaloosa in Alabama.
MATT (Caller): Yes, sir, hello.
CONAN: Matt, how was it yesterday?
MATT: It was - it's the most devastation I think I've ever seen in person anywhere in my life.
CONAN: Where were you?
MATT: I was at home. My wife, and actually my mother, just flew in from Baltimore a couple of days ago for a visit. So she was none too excited to be here. But she and my wife and my son were all in the bathroom, and I was a little bit more involved, a little bit more interested in it. So I watched through the window and I could see the sort of smaller spinning cyclones coming off the main one going through the neighborhoods around ours.
CONAN: How far away was the main one?
MATT: The main one from me maybe a quarter of a mile.
CONAN: And it sounds like your house did okay.
MATT: Yeah, I've got some shingles blown off the roof, but otherwise I did okay. We've got some neighbors right around here that have trees on top of their houses. We feel pretty fortunate.
CONAN: And the city itself is devastated.
MATT: Yeah, I mean, we - 15th Street, which is sort of the main drag with lots of the businesses that have been in Tuscaloosa for quite some time down there, and just as far you can see, it's flat.
I mean, we went to Bryant-Denny Stadium, which is sort of the iconic building here in Tuscaloosa. You can see it now from the mall, which is almost a mile away.
CONAN: And what did the sky look like when you looked out your window, as the storm was going by?
MATT: It was pretty much black, but the clouds that you could see were just the fastest-moving clouds I've ever seen going across the sky. I mean, it was like they - you would see it, and then it was gone, right over the house.
CONAN: Well, it was ugly in Baltimore yesterday too, but not that ugly. Your mother-in-law, I think, will be anxious to get home.
MATT: Oh, I have no doubt.
CONAN: All right. I'm glad everybody did okay.
MATT: Yes, sir, thank you.
CONAN: Thanks very much for the call. Joining us now from member station WBHM in Birmingham is Tanya Ott, news director there. Nice to have you with us.
Ms. TANYA OTT (News Director, WMBH): Thank you, Neal.
CONAN: And I hope everybody there is okay.
Ms. OTT: Everybody here is fine, everyone associated with the station is fine. There are some neighborhoods that have been pretty devastated by this storm, however.
CONAN: And that's in Birmingham. And it seemed like dozens of tornadoes broke out across the state yesterday.
Ms. OTT: It does seem like that. We tracked them from very early in the day, and every time we turned around there was another tornado forming somewhere, flying into the state from Mississippi.
At one point in time I think we were tracking three or four separate tornadoes at one time that were coming across from the western side of the state, through the central part of the state.
CONAN: And we just heard that caller from Tuscaloosa, and that's the story we've been hearing since yesterday evening. Is that the worst-hit place?
Ms. OTT: Tuscaloosa definitely took a very, very nasty hit. A good portion of the downtown area, the mall that Matt referenced, that was your caller from Tuscaloosa, totally flattened, lots and lots of businesses flattened, from what we've heard.
We do have reporters there. NPR Southern bureau chief Russell Lewis is there along with Kathy Lohr. They're going to be covering the situation in Tuscaloosa for the network. But it definitely was hard hit.
There were some smaller communities across the state that also took significant hits as well, in terms of damage and also loss of life.
CONAN: We're hearing, in fact, from one town, and I think this is sketchy at this point, but Rainsville, Alabama?
Ms. OTT: Yeah, the details are a little bit sketchy coming out of there, but I'll tell you what we do know. Rainsville, Alabama is in the northeast corner of Alabama. It is - if you know where Chattanooga is, it's kind of just south of there, in that northeast corner of Alabama.
CNN is reporting that in the town of Rainsville, there were 25 bodies recovered in one parking lot in the center of town. They got that from a local business owner who teaches search and rescue and volunteered to help with the Rainsville Fire Department.
And that, however, is unconfirmed at this point by us. What we can tell you is that we called the local sheriff's office. They have confirmed 35 deaths countywide in that county, and it's a pretty rural county. Thirty-five deaths is extremely significant.
So it looks like we may have a developing story up in Rainsville, Alabama, in the northeast corner, but at this point that's all we know.
CONAN: Okay, and as you look at this situation statewide, I know the National Guard has been called out, but this is going to be billions in damage.
Ms. OTT: It is, it is. I mean at this point we really can't even assess numbers. You know, we know that thousands of homes, thousands of businesses, churches, government buildings have been flattened. In Coleman, which is in the north central part of the state, they had I believe two tornadoes that came through the downtown area.
The city hall roof was ripped off. One of their historic churches was damaged significantly.
I spent most of the morning here in the Birmingham metro area. There was a tornado that passed a couple miles just north of the downtown area, really only about three or four miles from the radio station that I'm speaking to you from right now - houses just completely obliterated, churches down to the foundation. And that's it. It's a pretty dramatic scene.
CONAN: And I assume a lot of people - well, sadly, many lost their lives, but a lot of people lost their houses. Are they in shelters?
Ms. OTT: They are. Here in Birmingham, folks are sheltering in Boutwell Auditorium, which is downtown. I don't have exact numbers on how many people are down there.
But you know, you talked about loss of life- 248 people died in these storms across six states. Here in Alabama, 162 deaths confirmed so far. State officials say that number is going to go even higher. The National Weather Service says the deaths from this storm system are the most since the tornado outbreak that killed 315 people in 1974.
You know, just like with the dollar amounts on how much damage, the dollar amounts or the number of lives lost, we just don't know at this point.
CONAN: And it's not like it's over. I mean, that belt of storms has passed through and went through the East Coast here earlier today, but there's more due next week.
Ms. OTT: Yeah, yeah. You know, it seems like about every two weeks or so we've been hit with a band of storms, typically coming towards the end of the week.
You know, it seems like - I know for folks here in Alabama, that we've been under tornado watches and tornado warnings for, you know, six weeks or so, with more possibly coming.
CONAN: Tanya Ott, thanks very much for the time. Those reporters that she mentioned were up in Tuscaloosa. You can hear much more on what they have to say later today on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. And we're glad everybody at the station is well, and we wish everybody in the state Godspeed.
Ms. OTT: Thank you, Neal, we appreciate it.
CONAN: Tanya Ott, news director for member station WMBH in Birmingham, Alabama, where she joined us today.
Saw twisters that - excuse me, meteorologist Howie Bluestein joins us now from member station KGOU in Norman, Oklahoma, where he's research professor at the University of Oklahoma School of Meteorology. And nice to have you with us today.
Mr. HOWIE BLUESTEIN (University of Oklahoma): Good afternoon.
CONAN: And I know that tornadoes aren't measured until you can go look and see what kind of an effect they had. As you looked at what was going on yesterday, did you have any doubts that at least some of these were EF4's and 5's?
Mr. BLUESTEIN: Absolutely not. I was watching the radar in real time as these tornadic supercells moved from southwest to northeast across Alabama. And I could see the well-defined hook echoes and the mesocyclone signatures in a number of these storms.
What impressed me was how many supercells there were. Sometimes I saw six or more supercell storms, and many of them had the mesocyclone and tornado vortex signatures. So it was pretty clear from looking at the radar that things were very bad.
CONAN: And some say, you know, it's - some meteorologists say I've never seen it that bad.
Mr. BLUESTEIN: I have never seen it this bad myself. I remember the 1973, 1974 outbreak when I was a graduate student, and there may have been more storms then. I'm not sure. But this time there were probably almost as many.
Since I've been doing research, I've never seen so many storms in such a relatively small area. Alabama, really, there were just storms almost everywhere.
CONAN: And what conditions cause that kind of an outbreak?
Mr. BLUESTEIN: Well, there are three things that were required. One was very strong vertical wind shear. The winds had to change their wind speed as you went up with height and possibly change direction. We had that all through the Deep South yesterday.
Secondly, we needed very warm, moist arm near the surface and relatively cool air aloft, and those conditions were prevalent all over the area. And finally, we needed a way of triggering the thunderstorms, and there were ways in which the storms came up quite easily over a very, very broad area.
They didn't just come up along the cold front or along a dry line(ph). They came up well ahead of the cold front in many instances.
CONAN: And some of those conditions you describe, well, it sounds like spring. And again, spring storms are no surprise. This was just very unusual.
Mr. BLUESTEIN: Yes, this was unusual in the intensity. During the springtime we can get strong wind shear, but I've seen many instances where there wasn't quite as much moisture. Or the - there'll be a cap in the atmosphere, which prevents the formation of thunderstorms over a broad area, and storms will go up just rather locally. Yesterday storms went up over a very, very broad area.
CONAN: And is there, seemingly, a pattern? We saw, at the end of last week, the end of this week, and you look at the forecast, next week doesn't look so good either.
Mr. BLUESTEIN: Well, I just pulled up the computer forecast for next week, and I'm happy to say that next week will not be anything like the previous two weeks.
CONAN: Oh, good.
Mr. BLUESTEIN: At least according to the computer, there will probably not be any widespread outbreaks. There could be some activity - one or two days - but it doesn't look as widespread as it was last week and the week before.
CONAN: Stay with us, if you will. We have some more questions for you after a short break. We're talking with Howie Bluestein, Bluestein, excuse me, a meteorologist, a research professor at the University of Oklahoma School of Meteorology, and with us from KGOU in Norman, Oklahoma.
If you went through those storms yesterday, call and tell us your story, 800-989-8255. Email us, firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan. Stay with us. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
(Soundbite of music)
CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. Im Neal Conan in Washington.
Alabama took the brunt of yesterday's massive storms. The mayor of Tuscaloosa said this morning entire neighborhoods had been removed from the map.
President Obama visits the state tomorrow to meet with families and with the governor. One measure of just how widespread the damage was, officials across the South have begun the grim task of tallying the number of people killed: 131 in Alabama, about 30 in both Mississippi and Tennessee, a dozen in Georgia, several in Virginia, one in Kentucky. Numbers likely to rise, and recovery teams reach more areas.
It's still too early to estimate the financial cost, though it will likely surpass many billions. If you got caught up in the storms, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email email@example.com. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Meteorologist Howie Bluestein is with us, a research professor at the University of Oklahoma. And I have to ask you: At the same time we say this pattern of storms across the South and the Southeast, there is a desperate drought in parts of West Texas. This is - we're talking about massive crop failures is what we've told and obviously not as dramatic in terms of pictures but just as devastating to people.
Mr. BLUESTEIN: Yes, and I think that drought goes hand in hand with this wet weather in the Southeast right now. Systems have been coming off the Rocky Mountains and moving very, very quickly. It has been very difficult to get the moisture, the return moisture, back up into Texas and Oklahoma until the last few days.
CONAN: And is there any idea of how long that is likely to last? I know your specialty is shorter-term weather, but...
Mr. BLUESTEIN: I don't think any of us know exactly what's going to happen a week or two weeks from now. So I really wouldn't venture a guess.
CONAN: Well, Howie Bluestein, thank you very much for your time today. We appreciate it.
Mr. BLUESTEIN: You're welcome.
CONAN: Howie Bluestein at the University of Oklahoma School of Meteorology, which us from KGOU in Norman.
Stephanie Banks lives in Birmingham, Alabama, and joins us on the phone. Nice of you to be with us.
Ms. STEPHANIE BANKS: Thanks, Neal.
CONAN: And what did you hear yesterday?
Ms. BANKS: A lot. The day started with sirens waking us up around five, and shortly after that, I got a call from my boss, and that particular storm produced a straight-line or a wind shear in this neighborhood. And he was cutting limbs to get to cars. The neighbor's house had a tree in it. I think there has been one death confirmed in that neighborhood. And then it was just a long day.
CONAN: And you kept - I'm sure you kept hearing from friends and family all day long, too. Everybody's concerned about how everybody else is doing.
Ms. BANKS: Well, yes, and from time to time, of course, the signals would variate, and I'd have friends say: I've been trying to call and trying to call. And you didn't even know you were getting incoming calls with the cell phone coverage.
We were very fortunate in my home. My business closed around noon, and I live not too far, and we never lost power. So I had just a strange and awesome difference with this storm of watching them all on TV, including the one, the big wedge that hit north Birmingham.
You know, I'm sitting there with my flashlight and my radio in my hand, trying to decide if the storm's going to veer because it was eight, 10 miles away from us. And we just watched it cross the town.
CONAN: And everybody in your family is okay?
Ms. BANKS: Everyone's okay. I have co-workers that still haven't heard from family, and one co-worker I was texting back and forth with yesterday, her father-in-law works for a mine, and they had not heard from him for five hours. And finally, he'd been trapped in a mine elevator the whole time, so...
CONAN: In a mine elevator. It's hard to imagine anything more frightening.
Ms. BANKS: Yes, so a lot of stories, and more are going to come. You know, I got up this morning, there was insulation in my front yard, and my neighborhood does not have much damage at all. So the insulation is probably from other parts because they say they are finding debris from Tuscaloosa - which is a 45-minute drive from Birmingham - they're finding it 115 miles east of Tuscaloosa.
I saw a picture on the news this morning, before I left for the office, of a swimsuit in a neighborhood close to me, and, you know, we're 45 minutes from Tuscaloosa. It had - it was new and had a store tag on it from a store in Tuscaloosa.
CONAN: That's remarkable. Stephanie, I'm glad everybody in your family is well.
Ms. BANKS: Thank you.
CONAN: Thanks very much.
Ms. BANKS: Sure, thanks.
CONAN: Go next to Lazlo(ph), Lazlo with us from Jupiter in Florida.
LAZLO (Caller): Hi. Yeah, I was - I actually ran across (unintelligible) storm up in Fort Smith, Arkansas. There was a tornado warming there in Fort Smith and I saw a rotation right above downtown, and basically followed it down Highway 10 to Boonville, and I was actually delivering there in Boonville and picking up to take to get this load.
And as I got to West Memphis the next day, I saw another tornado damage a building on the south side of the highway and continue east, and it crossed the freeway right by the Wal-Mart and hit the Ford dealership. And it pretty much obliterated the front of the Ford dealership.
And I stopped in Tupelo because I'd had heard about the Tuscaloosa storm and wanted to wait it out a little bit, didn't want to drive in the middle of it. As chance would have it, though, I ended up in the back end of that.
As I pulled into Birmingham, they had the Highway 78 exit closed, and we had to go down to where it says local traffic. And all the traffic from Highway 78, which is a lot of truck traffic, ended up on a two-lane county road that winds through the woods. And there was fallen trees for about the first two miles of that road.
And then in the third mile, right before you get to the Flying-J truck stop, there was tremendous - that's where there was a direct hit. Apparently, a tornado had come right through there. There was two very large businesses that were destroyed.
There was, on the east side of the road, a large mound of tractor-trailer-type trailers stacked up like firewood and a building just ripped to shreds and power lines down. And the trees were broken off about 10 feet, 15 feet off the ground, and the tops, they didn't come apart, they just splintered and were laying almost like a big A-frame with all these trees broken in half and the tops laying down.
I've never seen - usually, they break off about a foot or two above the ground. These were about the - even with the top of the windshield of my truck. And, I mean, that was the most hardest-hit part of Birmingham, it looked like.
CONAN: And obviously you're a truck driver and made it through to Jupiter, Florida, today.
LAZLO: Well, I'm not quite there yet. I'm just now going across the top of the peninsula to get to the toll road.
CONAN: And we forget how much disruption this causes when trees block roads. And, well, the rain, too, can block roads.
LAZLO: Oh, yeah, there was - I had to stop last night because 65 was closed, and Highway 31 because the tornado that tracked across there, that's when they closed the National Weather Service there and were sending the warnings out of Atlanta because they got a direct hit there at the airport in Birmingham.
So, yeah, I had to spend the night in a Lowe's parking lot there off of 65 because I couldn't go any further.
CONAN: Well, Lazlo, we're glad you made it out safely.
LAZLO: Yeah, me, too. My daughter is having a baby today, and I wish I was there instead of here.
CONAN: Well, we wish her the best of luck.
LAZLO: All right, you all have a great day.
CONAN: You, too. Let's go next to - this is Ron(ph), Ron with us from Tuscaloosa.
RON (Caller): Hi.
CONAN: Hi, Ron.
RON: I am actually not in Tuscaloosa right now. I'm in Atlanta on business. But I own a Taco Bell in town, and - I'm sorry, I'm on the road. And the roof, the roof got blown off, and there's only actually one wall remaining.
I don't know what the rest of the store is like. So I'm trying to find out.
CONAN: This is a Taco Bell in Tuscaloosa?
RON: Yes. Yes, it is, yes.
CONAN: And if you own it, I have to say: Why are you in Atlanta today?
RON: Oh, on business, a convention in Atlanta.
CONAN: Okay. Was everybody okay?
RON: I do not know yet. But like I said, I'm trying to find out as much information as I can.
CONAN: Well, I'm sorry to hear about the damage, and I hope everybody is okay.
RON: Thank you very much.
CONAN: Thanks, Ron. Drive carefully. It's not twisters that plague the city of Fargo, North Dakota, it's flooding. The Red River in the north and a number of tributaries rose this month to some of the highest levels ever.
Joining us now from his office in Fargo is Mayor Dennis Walaker. Nice to have you with us today.
Mayor DENNIS WALAKER (Fargo, North Dakota): Good afternoon.
CONAN: How bad was the flooding this year?
Mayor WALAKER: Well, it depends upon who you ask.
CONAN: I'm asking you.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mayor WALAKER: We had - we started getting ready on Valentine's Day in February, and it - we made a lot of preparations, and we got ready for it, and then it crested a little bit lower than they first anticipated.
So, you know, the city of Fargo, within the city limits of Fargo, you know, we spent about, oh, maybe between $7 and $9 million in the process of getting ready for the flood. And we're in the process now of starting to take down some of those things.
So the city of Fargo had very minimal damage to property. You know, there are some streets that will need some work and so forth, and there's a lot of cleanup, probably $3 million worth of cleanup, tearing down some of the dikes that the corps of engineers built and so forth.
So, no, things are good in the city limits right now. The process where it is more difficult is in the western - in our western county or Cass. They have a lot of overland flooding. There's a lot of farms that are still getting to their farms by boats from roads that are built a little higher and so forth.
And the Sheyenne River, which is - starts up by Devils Lake and flows about 150 miles before it meanders through Cass County, it's still at record highs and creating some problems along the streams. So right now, the rural communities are, you know, there - a lot of roads are closed right now in Cass County.
CONAN: As it happens, I was up in Fargo during that last big snowstorm, before the melt, and...
(Soundbite of laughter)
CONAN: ...people were telling me about the millions of sandbags that had been acquired in preparation for this year's flood. In retrospect, was it worth it?
Mayor WALAKER: Oh, absolutely. Every fight, we've - I've been here probably too long, and we've never lost a fight. And the sandbags have been a big part of that. We made almost two million sandbags this year, and we - as the crest lowered, their predictions and so forth, we sent about 300,000 to Valley City, a town 60 miles west of here. We've stored some. We've provided them to different agencies and so forth, and we placed about, oh, roughly 700,000 this year.
And, you know, in 2009, of course, was the highest on record in 125 years of record, and we were in two feet of that. So our river stage is 18 feet, and our river crest at about - just about 39 feet here on April 9th, and now, it's going down very, very slowly.
CONAN: I don't know how much time you've had to watch the news, but there's been some terrible flooding in places like Poplar Bluff, Missouri, where...
Mayor WALAKER: Absolutely.
CONAN: ...a river flows through the middle of town. And I just wondered if you have any advice for people dealing with that situation given the experiences you've had up there in Fargo every year?
Mayor WALAKER: Well, as far as advice, you need to be prepared. Whatever you can do to make your city more flood proof, the better off you are. And we've been making improvements in our city, here, back to 1989 and before that.
And in 1997, we had what we thought was going - was a record flood, and the highest it had ever been in 120 years at that time, or 115 years at that time. And so we thought we've seen the worst, and we've made - had an opportunity to do a lot of improvements and so forth.
Right now, we're working on diversion, which is going to require a significant - about a 65 percent contribution from the corps of engineers. We've got - all the - the local share is done, and to get it through Congress at this time...
CONAN: Good luck.
Mayor WALAKER: ...good luck.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mayor WALAKER: So I think my - our process right now is to continue to make improvements, and that's - we've purchased about 250 homes since 1997 and relocated, or basically took them down, and all of that makes a certain amount of improvements for our flood fight.
This year, we've tried to reduce sandbags, so instead of placing, you know, two and a half million, we ended up placing about 700,000. And that's a big - but people are getting tired. This is our third in a row. We've never had three floods in a row in consecutive years in our 125-year history.
As far as the people living down south, boy, the integrity of your dikes is so important. You may have to relocate. That's tough.
Mayor WALAKER: I mean, people have to understand why that the people who settled our communities, do it along the river, was for water access and so forth. And then, the river then becomes very difficult to deal with during high water, and then, it seems like our, you know, our climate seems to be somewhat more suspect right now.
We're in what we call a wet cycle and - from about 1993 and on. There's a - called Devils Lake, which is a lake up in central-northern North Dakota that nobody has ever seen a lake as high as it is right now.
CONAN: Mayor Walaker, thanks very much for your time.
Mayor WALAKER: You bet. Thank you.
CONAN: Dennis Walaker, mayor of Fargo, North Dakota. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
And let's get Phil on the line. Phil with us from Little Rock.
PHIL (caller): Hey, good afternoon.
PHIL: I wanted to just tell you really quick about my situation. First of all, my thoughts and prayers go out to all the victims. There's an awful lot of them. So much devastation.
But I was coming back from northwest Arkansas for some business, and got started off late in the afternoon and was driving through an awful lot of bad weather, and this was on Monday.
And listening to a radio station that had some of the - they were broadcasting the television news, the weathercasters, and they were giving mile-marker positions and where these cells were and everything. And, you know, you're pushing your luck. I was trying to get home. My wife was home alone. And I got right down to where they said a tornado was getting really close, and I was in Interstate 40, and all of a sudden, I realized I was in the wrong place at the wrong time.
And I physically just stopped my car on the highway - and I didn't even get over to the shoulder road - when the wind and the debris just started blowing across like crazy. And my car tipped up some on its side, and I thought it was going to roll me over. And it laid back down, but then, the wind actually rotated my car about 90 degrees into the wind. And I was just - and it was just pelting it with stuff, and I was just holding on the steering wheel, praying pretty hard. And it ripped the fairing off my car, a body fairing off my car. It was just nuts, so my point is...
(Soundbite of laughter)
CONAN: Pay attention when they tell you the warnings.
(Soundbite of laughter)
PHIL: Yeah. Heed the warnings. It's really not worth it, because you can't see these things when they're shrouded in rain clouds and everything...
PHIL: ...and all of sudden, they're just on you.
CONAN: Glad you made it, Phil. Appreciate the phone call.
PHIL: Okay. Thank you.
CONAN: Just wanted to add this news, the University of Alabama today canceled students' final exams and postponed commencement ceremonies for graduates in the wake of the storms that struck the city of Tuscaloosa yesterday.
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