Stunned Residents Wander Tuscaloosa's Rubble

It was a deadly week across the South as some 300 people were killed in a rash of tornadoes that ripped through the region. Guest host Linda Wertheimer talks with NPR's Debbie Elliott about the damage sustained in parts of Alabama.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer in for Scott Simon.

It was a deadly week across the South. Some 300 people were killed in a rash of tornadoes that ripped through the region. More than 200 of those deaths happened in Alabama where entire towns were flattened; more than a million people were left without power.

Yesterday, President Barack Obama visited Tuscaloosa, where the damage is great. He appeared struck by the sheer magnitude of the destruction.

President BARACK OBAMA: This is something that I don't think anybody's seen before.

WERTHEIMER: NPR's Debbie Elliott is in Tuscaloosa. She joins us now.

Debbie, where exactly was the president going on his trip to Alabama?

DEBBIE ELLIOTT: Well, he spent more of his time here in Tuscaloosa, but got to see a large section of the city. What's interesting about this storm is that it didn't just hit one neighborhood. Typically when we report on tornadoes, one or two neighborhoods are hit. But this tornado really took its toll on several neighborhoods in Tuscaloosa, and the president got a good overview of that.

He saw neighborhoods that were flattened; in particular, Alberta City, a little town not far from the University of Alabama. And he talked to some survivors there. The death toll in this area was very large. Apartment complexes have completely collapsed. Homes are just piles of wooden slats. Roofs have been blown off of churches, and pews have gone flying down the block.

So he got a real good sense of just the scope and magnitude of this. And he promised the storm victims that these damaged communities will rebuild with federal help, and he tried to foster a little hope I think while he was here.

Pres. BARACK OBAMA: It's part of the American spirit. We go through hard times, but no matter how hard we may be tested, we maintain our faith, and we look to each other.

WERTHEIMER: What has been the impact of this disaster on the people there?

ELLIOTT: Well, you know, Mayor Walt Maddox of Tuscaloosa said something interesting. He said, you know, everyone is calling this a disaster, but for the people of Tuscaloosa, this is not a disaster, this is a nightmare. And you can see that sentiment on people's faces.

When I first arrived, the day after the storm, people were still just sort of walking up and down streets, kind of looking like they were in a daze. You couldn't drive initially because there were trees down everywhere, and power lines, and many of the roads were closed or blocked or otherwise. So people were just walking out of their neighborhoods.

And then when you talk to people, you still get a sense that they're fragile, and that they're surprised that they have endured what they've been through.

Here is a gentleman that I ran across in a neighborhood that was very heavily damaged, but his house was still standing, and he was making repairs. His name is Leslie Stallworth.

Mr. LESLIE STALLWORTH: Yeah, yeah. We made it through. We made it through. Blessed, because it was kind of rough. Kind of rough.

WERTHEIMER: Debbie, do we know any more about why so many people died in Tuscaloosa? Why people did not get out of some of these buildings?

ELLIOTT: I think when a tornado like this comes, there's not a lot of time to get out. There is time to get in - in a closet, in a bathtub, under a mattress, put on a helmet. And I have heard time and time again, people thanking the meteorologists for giving them ample warning to be able to take that shelter, and they say that's why they're alive today.

It's not like a hurricane where you might have days of warning and preparation. When the severe weather is coming, you know it's coming, you have to decide where your safe shelter is. And once a tornado is spotted, you can't very well leave a building and go seek shelter. But certainly those are the questions that officials are now grappling with and trying to understand.

Even as the search and rescue continues, there are still missing people who are unaccounted for, and so that death toll could rise in the next day or so.

WERTHEIMER: Let me just ask you a personal question. Tuscaloosa is where the University of Alabama is, your alma mater; you know the town well. What's it like for you to be there?

ELLIOTT: It's surreal because the familiar is gone, you know. Landmarks that you're used to seeing are not there. A main intersection here in Tuscaloosa where - when I first arrived in town I was trying to get to that intersection, and I had to go through some back ways, and I lost my bearings a time or two because things were gone. Not just street signs, but familiar buildings, familiar billboards, you know, everything gone.

So it's hard to tell where you are. It's a very surreal feeling. It's very clear that it's going to take a very long time for this community to get back where it was.

WERTHEIMER: NPR's Debbie Elliott reporting from Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Debbie, thank you.

ELLIOTT: Thank you, Linda.

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