Dozens Dead And Communities Reeling As Storms Roil Deep South

Severe storms have hit Alabama, Mississippi and Tennessee, killing more than 30 people and leveling buildings throughout the South.

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This South is coping with a third day of severe weather. More than 30 people in the region have been killed. NPR's Debbie Elliott reports the damage is widespread, reaching from Oklahoma to the Carolinas.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: Hundreds have lost their homes as the storms and tornadoes cut a deadly path through at least six states. Near Birmingham, Alabama, the worst came in the night, when a tornado tore the roof off some buildings at Timberline West Apartments in Bessemer. In the light of day, one of the complex managers, Wade Nichols, surveys the damage.

WADE NICHOLS: So, this is the first chance actually seeing this. It's crazy. And it's depressing.

ELLIOTT: Top floors are exposed, and windows are busted out of many units. He warns residents about downed power lines in the parking lot.

NICHOLS: Y'all just be careful walking through. We prefer everybody to stay this way.

ELLIOTT: During the storm, Mario Perez hunkered in the bathroom of his first floor unit with his two young children.

MARIO PEREZ: I put my kids in the tub and I laid them down and I went on top of them. And that's what it was, I guess. The noise was really bad, like - bam.

ELLIOTT: Elsewhere in Alabama, three people were killed including a member of the University of Alabama swim team who died when a basement retaining wall collapsed at a house in Tuscaloosa. In Tupelo, Mississippi, Kevin Barnes' home was destroyed as a tornado swept through the northeast corner of the state. Barnes says his daughter and their roommate were there when it happened.

KEVIN BARNES: He was in the house holding onto Sarah and when he was looking up as the front wall of the house came through, it hit him. And when he looked up he saw the tornado carry the top of the house off and push it off into the backyard.

ELLIOTT: Miraculously, they escaped with only minor injuries. While more than 30 people have died in this week's storms, the death toll is far less than the more than 300 people who perished three years ago when a similar destructive spring storm system pounded the South. But much like that event, numerous strong tornadoes have affected a large geographic area. In south Tennessee, recovery efforts are underway in Lincoln County, where two tornadoes touched down Monday evening, wiping out several communities near the Alabama border. Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam.

BILL HASLAM: The search is ongoing down there. There's been quite a bit of destruction. Tennessee Highway Patrol, FEMA, National Guard and others are on site and involved. The school down there has, basically, has been totally destroyed.

ETHAN HORTON: It was really humbling to see all this go down, you know, in your hometown.

ELLIOTT: Ethan Horton came to help his aunt in Fayetteville, Tennessee.

(SOUNDBITE OF MACHINERY)

ELLIOTT: Downed trees and metal scattered by the tornado litter her yard. The house is just across from an open field from the ripped up South Lincoln Elementary School.

HORTON: Yeah, it looks just like a can of soup got opened. And I know it took the bus and threw it through the front. And then actually back here, it actually flipped the bus over. If you walk on back in the field, there's I-beams that's bent, there's lumber everywhere, trees are in half.

ELLIOTT: Throughout the region, there was an urgency to get repairs underway today as more storms are coming through.

(SOUNDBITE OF CONSTRUCTION)

ELLIOTT: In the north Alabama town of Ripley, Jeff Yarbrough was busy covering his damaged roof with a giant gray tarp.

JEFF YARBROUGH: We lost the ridge on our roof here and it's raining into it and we're trying to get it back in to dry.

ELLIOTT: His family has a storm house where they sheltered from the tornado.

YARBROUGH: And luckily, everybody's fine. Sure is. You know, we hate this happened but, you know, you can replace material things. And then, you know, family is all that matters.

ELLIOTT: Debbie Elliott, NPR News.

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