Birmingham, Ala., Takes Direct Hit From Tornado

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Storms have wreaked havoc on Southern states this week. But Alabama has been hit hardest. Tornadoes have killed at least 162 people in the state. Birmingham, Ala., took a direct hit from a large tornado that skirted just north of downtown.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

The images from the Southeast are horrifying. A dark funnel cloud bearing down, the mountains of rubble, piles of splinters that were once houses and trees. A violent storm system swept through several states, including Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee, Georgia and Virginia. It spawned dozens of tornadoes and it killed hundreds. The numbers are climbing toward 300.

Alabama was hardest hit and reporter Tanya Ott of member station WBHM in Birmingham spent the morning visiting areas that were slammed by a large tornado.

TANYA OTT: Joyce and William Thompson have lived in the Smithfield Estates neighborhood for decades. They've weathered bad storms here before - including a tornado that hit Smithfield in April of 1977. But they say this one was different.

Mr. WILLIAM THOMPSON: It lasted about three seconds, whoo, after that it was gone.

Ms. JOYCE THOMPSON: Yeah. And then when we got up, came out, all we could hear was just glass, just cracking and stuff and by the time we opened the door, this is what we saw.

OTT: Everywhere, houses flattened, trees lying across the street with power lines, the menacing smell of gas. They walked more than mile on foot to shelter at a local school, then came back this morning to check out their house.

Ms. THOMPSON: We did lock our door. We locked the door, but it was just habit.

OTT: The living room looks pristine. A large white teddy bear sits in the middle of a golden couch. The only sign of trouble is the Easter candy bowl that's fallen from the entry table. But venture down a hallway to the kitchen and it's a different story.

Ms. THOMPSON: Yeah, the ceiling was falling in when we ran out. I had just changed my kitchen from Easter to Memorial Day.

OTT: And describe it for me now.

Ms. THOMPSON: Oh, the ceiling is down. The lights in the top of the house is all out. The windows in the side is out.

OTT: Outside, former state representative John Hilliard walks the street talking to his neighbors.

State Representative JOHN HILLIARD (Democrat, Birmingham, Alabama): It looks like Iraq or Sudan, you know. That's just how bad it is. I can only say that there are houses that are have just exploded, you know. The churches in this area are just demolished. It's extremely bad.

(Soundbite of helicopter)

OTT: Helicopters fly overhead, assessing the damage. Emergency responders go door to door. They have to. Most of the residents here are retired. They tend to lock the door, then head to the basement. Police are still finding people hiding out and people trapped in debris.

A few blocks away, cops have another problem on their hands. People are picking through the rubble of a gas station that was demolished. They're pulling out all of the unbroken bottles of beer and wine. An officer confronts a woman loading garbage bags full of bottles into her car.

Unidentified Man: All you're stealing is beer. Why aren't you stealing water or something you need?

OTT: The officer tells me the gas station owner said it was fine for residents to take water or food if they need it, but not alcohol.

(Soundbite of sirens)

OTT: The ground was already saturated from an earlier storm. So when the tornado rolled through, instead of just snapping branches, it uprooted entire trees. Omar Berry and four of his friends are ready to get to work.

Mr. OMAR BERRY: We just came from Home Depot, got a couple of chainsaws, so we could come out and try to help people. You know, major damage out here.

(Soundbite of chainsaw)

OTT: This neighborhood will need a lot of help rebuilding. John Hilliard, the former state lawmaker, says it will be a long, expensive process.

State Rep. HILLIARD: Some of these folks were out of jobs, couldn't pay their homeowners insurance, so it's going to be a long, long time. It's going to be rough.

OTT: Two thousand National Guard troops have been called in to assist in search and rescue across Alabama. President Obama will visit tomorrow to tour the damage areas.

For NPR News, I'm Tanya Ott in Birmingham, Alabama.

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