Obama To Tour Alabama's Tornado Damage

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In Alabama Friday, President Obama and the first lady will meet with families whose homes were destroyed by tornadoes. Gov. Robert Bentley will show the Obamas storm damage as search and rescue crews keep looking for survivors.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

In Alabama today, President Obama and the first lady will meet families whose homes were destroyed by tornadoes. Alabama Governor Robert Bentley will show the Obamas storm damage. Tanya Ott, of our member station in Birmingham, WBHM, has been covering the disaster.

Tanya, where have you been in the last 24 hours and what have you seen?

TANYA OTT: I've been spending a lot of time in the northern part of Birmingham, a couple of miles north and west of the downtown core. That's where a tornado swept through, really, really hitting communities.

I spent a number of hours out there, yesterday, with folks who were just trying to get back into their neighborhood, trying to figure out if they can salvage anything from their homes. They had to duck police roadblocks and climb over fallen trees and underneath power lines to reclaim the stuff that they were looking for.

INSKEEP: You said trying to get back into their neighborhood. Where had they ridden out the storm?

OTT: Well, when the tornado came through, everything was devastated. A lot of houses were completely taken down to their foundations. Those that weren't, you know, had windows blown out, had trees through roofs. People were not able to get their cars out, obviously. So they had walked out on foot, Wednesday evening, to a local school, where they had sheltered overnight. To get back in they had to, basically, park about a mile or so away and walk in on foot yesterday.

INSKEEP: Now, how widespread is the damage? By which I mean, when you get beyond the neighborhoods that have just been utterly devastated, what does Birmingham look like?

OTT: In the area where the tornados came through, it does look like a war zone. Residents talk about it, you know, looking like someone dropped a bomb. But you can move just a couple of miles away from that swath of damage and you see some downed trees. You may see some power lines that are, you know, askew. But, we really can get around quite well through most of the Birmingham metro area.

INSKEEP: I bet every conversation that you've had in the last 24 hours, whether it's with somebody you meet on the street while working or someone in your family, the conversation begins with how you went through the storm and what things look like now.

OTT: Definitely. You know, I know I was out in the field yesterday, Steve, and I was talking with a couple - Joyce and William Thompson. They've been married for 43 years.

They had gone down into their basement to shelter and they said - and this was interesting. You know, William said it lasted about three seconds. That was it. I heard a big zooh(ph) sound and then it was gone. All they could hear was glass cracking. And they opened the doors and they saw the devastation.

Now, I went back with them into their home, yesterday, as they tried to gather up medicines and clothing and things like that. We walked in the front door and the living room was absolutely pristine. Nothing out of place, except for a small bowl that had held Easter candy and had fallen off their entry table.

Walk about four or five steps back down a hallway to their kitchen, though, total devastation. You could see sunlight coming through the roof. All of the drywall in the ceiling was out. There was insulation everywhere. The window was blown out.

So one room perfect, another room destroyed.

INSKEEP: So those people survived, remarkably, in their basement, even though much of their house was destroyed. Of course, we have a death toll in the hundreds and that's being changed and adjusted as we go through the day. I imagine, Tanya, there's still people out looking for survivors and perhaps, also, for bodies in the rubble.

OTT: Absolutely, Steve. We have got a search and rescue effort going on right now. But at some point, that is going to transition into a search and recovery effort.

In Tuscaloosa, Alabama, which was one of the hardest hit towns - that's the community that President Obama will be visiting later today - crews and volunteers spent hours yesterday searching for one five-year-old girl who had been seen near her home when the storms hit. The Birmingham news had a reporter following the story onsite.

And last night, shortly after 7 o'clock, emergency workers found that girl's body under a sofa near the spot where her home once stood. So I imagine we'll be hearing more stories like this as today progresses.

INSKEEP: Tanya, thanks very much.

OTT: Thanks, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's Tanya Ott of member station WBHM in Birmingham.

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