In Alabama, Looking For Strength Among The Ruins

The death toll from this week's tornadoes has topped 340 — and 28 of them came from one small Alabama town. Very little of Rainsville, population 5,000, remains. And yet, survivors continue the difficult task of picking up the pieces. One family, the Hamiltons, struggles to figure out what to do next.

GUY RAZ, host:

We're back with ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.

Tornadoes in the South costs so much destruction in parts of Alabama that rescue teams are still searching for missing people, including, in Tuscaloosa, more than 340 people are now confirmed dead in the southern state. It's the worst natural disaster in the U.S. since Hurricane Katrina.

Now, much of the recent attention has rightfully focused on Tuscaloosa, in central Alabama. But the more rural northeast part of the state was also devastated.

NPR's Kathy Lohr visited with one family as they struggle to figure out what to do next.

KATHY LOHR: This week's storm was a monster. When you stand outside Alan and Jennifer Hamilton's home near Rainsville, Alabama, you can understand why so many people here died.

Ms. JENNIFER HAMILTON: It just rolled and rumbled, and you could hear the vibration and the shaking.

LOHR: When the tornado roared across the state, it pulverized the Hamiltons' brick home, ripped out the stone fireplace and blew up furniture. The family took cover in the laundry room.

Ms. HAMILTON: My son-in-law had laid over my pregnant daughter to protect her. And we had pillows stuffed around her. And my husband kept hollering, hang on, it's almost over. Hang on, it's almost over. So I think that gave us the strength and courage to keep sitting there, although we were about hysterical.

LOHR: Now three days after the tornado hit, Jennifer Hamilton tries to remain calm. Thirty-three people in the county have been confirmed dead, but many say the actual number may be much higher. A trailer park just down the highway was obliterated.

Ms. HAMILTON: There were people walking up from the road who were - looked to be injured pretty bad. And I understand that about half a mile down the road from us, they found about 23 people who did not survive. So for us to come out with just a total loss of our house and vehicles, we're okay.

Unidentified Man #1: (Unintelligible)

Ms. HAMILTON: Yeah. Hey, Drew. Yeah. They do want that washer and drier.

DREW: Who does?

Ms. HAMILTON: Alan wants it.

LOHR: Jennifer and her husband Alan are among those sorting through what's left. Friends with pickup trucks stop by to see if they can haul away anything salvageable.

(Soundbite of rustling)

Unidentified Man #2: Hang on a second. Watch out.

LOHR: Some of the men are moving piles of debris and crumbling bricks so they can pry loose an oven and microwave that still might work. Jennifer says the $250,000 home they built five years ago and most of their possessions are just gone.

Ms. HAMILTON: We got some of our shoes and some dishes and a few pictures, and that's probably about all that's going to be salvageable here.

LOHR: The couple is waiting for an insurance adjuster to visit. They were promised someone would stop by. But by late Friday, no one had shown up. Jennifer and Alan say they understand thousands need help. But they were frustrated with the response they got.

Mr. ALAN HAMILTON: Yeah, they just said we's in the system. If we needed underwear or something, they'd bring it to us, but that's pretty much it.

Ms. HAMILTON: And we told them that we - it wasn't underwear that we needed. We needed a home and we need vehicles, that we've had a total loss.

LOHR: The Hamiltons are staying with family, but it's clear the long, stressful days of working in the sun without shelter and power are wearing on them.

Ms. HAMILTON: We're looking for help. And we're looking for a home. We want, you know, a trailer, a RV or something brought here to - that we can have our family in until we can, I mean, you can't just stay with somebody every day of your life.

LOHR: Finally this morning, an insurance agent did stop by. Now they're waiting to see how much of the damage will be covered. Jennifer says she's had moments where she just lost it, but mostly she's tries to remain strong.

Ms. HAMILTON: And I keep reminding myself, and that's where I keep trying to get my inner strength, I look around and I say we may have lost everything, but, you know, we're not having to bury our loved ones at the same time.

LOHR: Jennifer's daughter Nakisha, who's 27, is having her first baby in August. That's another reason this family says it remains hopeful, even as they realize the cleanup here will take months.

Kathy Lohr, NPR News.

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