South Picks Up The Pieces After Deadly Tornadoes

Searchers are still trying to find those missing after last week's deadly rash of tornadoes that ripped through the South. More than 340 people are dead, but the toll is expected to rise as the rubble is cleared. In hard-hit Tuscaloosa, Ala., those who were spared the worst are trying to start anew.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

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

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

And we're going to take a break now from the day's big story to check in on Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Searchers there are still trying to find those missing after a series of deadly tornadoes ripped through the South last week. More than 340 people are dead, but the toll is expected to rise as the rubble is cleared.

NPR's Debbie Elliott has the stories of survivors who are struggling to start anew.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT: The sanctuary of Rosedale Baptist Church is too damaged to use. So, yesterday morning, the congregation gathered on the grass in folding chairs.

(Soundbite of song, "Amazing Grace")

Unidentified Group: (Singing) Amazing grace, how sweet...

ELLIOTT: While crews work nearby on downed power lines, Pastor Louis Johnson delivers his sermon from a flatbed trailer.

The Reverend LOUIS JOHNSON (Rosedale Baptist Church): As you huddled in your houses, and the walls came down, and the roofs caved in, and everything you owned was swept away, the only reason you stand here today in this congregation is because the Almighty God Himself reached down His hand from heaven. He covered you.

(Soundbite of applause)

ELLIOTT: The church is surrounded by destruction, and nearby residents walked over for the service. When it's over, an emotional Gloria Brown comes to the front and seeks counsel from church member Susan Guin.

Ms. SUSAN GUIN: Ma'am, I'm here for you. God's here for you. You tell me what you want to say.

Ms. GLORIA BROWN: I just want to thank him that I'm alive, my family.

ELLIOTT: Brown lives across the street, in a yellow house with a huge steel beam sticking through it. Brown and her fiance Mark Long were hunkered in the closet when it came crashing through the wall.

Mr. MARK LONG: I thought first it was just a piece of wood, but I knocked on it, it's a piece of steel.

ELLIOTT: Long says it's part of an industrial dumpster that came from a salvage yard across the interstate. Like many storm survivors here in the Bible Belt, the couple believes they were saved by God's hand.

A few blocks away, the tornado leveled more than 50 brick and cinderblock apartments at the Rosedale Court public housing project. Constance Foster and her 11-year-old granddaughter saw it coming.

Ms. CONSTANCE FOSTER: We actually saw the small tornado as it was forming, the big one grab it and suck it in, and it expanded like the mouth of hell.

ELLIOTT: The apartment collapsed on top of them, and they were trapped until family members dug them out after the storm. Now, Foster is waiting in line to see a FEMA contractor who has pulled up in his pickup truck from Texas, laptop in the cab.

Unidentified Man #1: Who's next?

Ms. FOSTER: I'm Constance.

ELLIOTT: Foster tells him she's already registered by phone. He asks for an ID or even a utility bill for proof.

Ms. FOSTER: That I live there? I can't even tell you I can go over there and find a piece of paper with nothing on it because I've been through the rubbish and hadn't found nothing.

ELLIOTT: They walk to find her unit, but it's hard to tell which apartments are which. When she gets close to her building, she notices a bad smell in the air.

Ms. FOSTER: It stinks over there.

ELLIOTT: Everyone who lived here has not been accounted for.

Ms. FOSTER: Babies we haven't found yet, that we knew were there, should be there.

ELLIOTT: In Tuscaloosa alone, more than 340 people are still missing. Tears roll down Foster's check as she thinks about her friends and neighbors who were killed.

Ms. FOSTER: My grandbaby was with me, and she came out with me. Some didn't come out.

ELLIOTT: Foster wipes her face, and says five days of crying and wondering why are enough. Balancing on a piece of plywood in the rubble of her apartment, she spots a folded piece of paper in the debris.

Ms. FOSTER: A'laysia, your paper from the school has our address on it.

ELLIOTT: Just the documentation she needs to apply for temporary housing aid from FEMA.

Ms. FOSTER: Bless you, Lord.

ELLIOTT: Debbie Elliott, NPR News, Tuscaloosa, Alabama.

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