Debbie Elliott, NPR
Tornados cut through the Aldridge Grove community in Lawrence County, Ala.
Tornados cut through the Aldridge Grove community in Lawrence County, Ala. Debbie Elliott, NPR
The South is reeling from the deadliest strike of tornadoes in more than 25 years. At least 55 people are dead and hundreds more injured. FEMA teams dispatched to the region Wednesday, and President Bush has promised federal aid. Most of the fatalities were in Tennessee, but deaths were also reported in Arkansas, Kentucky and Alabama, where the predawn twisters caught some families off guard.
Lawrence County, Ala., is mostly flat territory in the northwest part of the state. An occasional rolling hill gives you a long view out over green pastures and pine tree stands. So you couldn't miss the mark left when a monster twister cut through the Aldridge Grove community.
"We have a path about 16.7 miles long, 1/4 mile wide, to where the storm hit and did its entire damage," said John James, deputy director of the Alabama Emergency Management Agency.
It struck in the dark of night, about 3 am, when most residents were sleeping.
"We weren't prepared at all," he said.
Deborah Montgomery woke up to winds crashing in on her mobile home.
"I felt pressure in my ears. I guess the windows coming in. We got in the hall — that's the only place without windows — and just started praying."
She says her prayers were answered. The trailer is only slightly damaged, but a workshed out back is reduced to scrap. Strips of metal are wrapped around a tree, flapping in the stiff breeze the day after the storm.
Across the street it's a more dire scene.
Members of the Alabama state defense force pick through the remnants of a brick home that was flattened and spread a hundred yards across a front yard. Part of its wooden roof is perched high in a tree across the street.
"This is a national guardsmen's home," says First Lt. Will Wright, who is coordinating the cleanup. His team finds a good conduct medal.
"He served in Iraq, and we're trying to find his box of ribbons," he says. "Trying to help the family find as much as we possibly can. He was in the Alabama Department of the military, just like we are, and we're going to do what we can for him."
The former guardsman, Ray Coleman, his wife Rebecca, and their 19-year old son, Garrett , were all killed.
Rebecca's father, James Devaney, says Ray Coleman was a humvee driver who had survived an attack in Iraq and came home suffering from post traumatic stress. Ray and Garrett had been working as plumbers. Rebecca was a cashier at the local grocery store.
"it's a shock, big shock," Devaney says. "(A)ppreciate (your) family till they not with ya anymore. That's the way I look at it."
Devaney is looking for his daughter's gold necklace. The guardsmen haven't seen it, but they do uncover a copy of the New Testament, with Garrett's name inscribed in it in the shaky penmanship of a young child.
The soldiers are visibly moved. They've been in Aldridge Grove since before dawn. Wright says, in times like these, all you can do is pitch in.