Workers Comb Through Tornado-Stricken Tuscaloosa

Nearly 250 people died in storms that blasted across the South Wednesday, and the death toll continues to rise. Most of the casualties came in Alabama. A mile-wide twister ripped through populated areas of Birmingham and Tuscaloosa, and rescue workers are combing through the rubble, searching for those still buried underneath.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

We begin this hour in Alabama where rescue workers are combing through rubble. They're searching for people still buried after tornadoes ripped through the cities of Birmingham and Tuscaloosa and beyond. The Alabama governor has confirmed at least 194 deaths in his state. In a moment, we'll hear from a survivor with a terrifying story.

First from Tuscaloosa, NPR's Kathy Lohr sent this story.

KATHY LOHR: Tuscaloosa is a college town of about 90,000 in north-central Alabama. It's known as the home of the University of Alabama and of its prized Crimson Tide football team. The rising death toll and the widespread destruction have shocked just about everyone here. The university escaped much of the damage, but the tornado wiped out parts of the city.

In one area off Interstate 359, a gas station and convenience store that got hit opened anyway. The mile-wide tornado that cut through here ripped off part of the roof and flipped over a gas pump.

Assistant manager Christine Kenyon is still shaken as she recalls the image.

Ms. CHRISTINE KENYON: Watching it just suck everything up as it was coming across. It just - it made your whole body hurt, because you knew it was just tragic. You knew everything in its path was going to be wiped out.

LOHR: Kenyon, three other employees and three customers took cover in a bathroom - advice, she says, she remembered hearing from forecasters who warned about the treacherous conditions that brought the highest number of casualties to Alabama in decades and was the worst in the U.S. since the 1950s.

Ms. KENYON: So when they said get in the bathroom, get in the bathroom.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. KENYON: Safest part of the building. Get in the bathroom.

Unidentified Woman: Get in the bathroom.

Ms. KENYON: We - the building was shaking. I didn't think that the roof was even going to stay on. God was watching out for us.

LOHR: Just down the street, the mega twister completely shattered the Rosedale Court apartment complex on the west side of town.

(Soundbite of digging)

LOHR: Hal Gamble(ph), who's lived here for three years, digs through broken bricks, insulation and twisted metal pieces that used to be his apartment. Only Gamble's bedroom closet remains standing.

Mr. HAL GAMBLE: I just heard a loud sound - wooo. And then, the only thing I know it pulled the roof off first and then it started eating up the bricks and stuff.

LOHR: Gamble says bricks tumbled on top of his legs, but he dug himself out after the funnel cloud passed.

Mr. GAMBLE: I (unintelligible) I stop back to see what I can find to save.

(Soundbite of digging)

Mr. GAMBLE: It's really devastated.

(Soundbite of digging)

LOHR: You got a briefcase.

Mr. GAMBLE: Yeah. That's my important papers in there.

LOHR: When I left, Gamble was still searching for his wallet. He will stay with friends tonight. A handful of shelters scattered around the city have opened up as more and more residents realize they have nowhere to go.

Tuscaloosa Mayor Walt Maddox says the tornado stayed on the ground and tore through neighborhoods for as many as four miles, creating utter destruction. The city's infrastructure took a big hit. Much of the city is still without power. The roof was ripped off the emergency management building, so officials moved that operation to the University of Alabama football stadium. And Mayor Maddox says the city's garbage and recycling trucks were also ruined.

Mayor WALKER MADDOX (Tuscaloosa, Alabama): The majority of our fleet is either damaged or destroyed which will complicate clean-up efforts severely. It will also severely impact garbage pickup for the months to come.

LOHR: The University of Alabama has canceled final exams and decided to move graduation ceremonies to August.

Governor Robert Bentley has sent in 2,000 National Guard troops to help search for the missing, and President Obama is scheduled to visit hard-hit areas of the state tomorrow.

Kathy Lohr, NPR News, Tuscaloosa, Alabama.

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