Severe storms, tornadoes ravage South

Two teens climb over debris to the back door of their home in hopes of finding some piece of their lives untouched by the damaging tornado. | Photo by Abigail Harris

By Megan Seals

Tornadoes and severe storms struck the South in late April and have caused an estimated 354 deaths across seven states. They left thousands of residents homeless and have led to insured losses estimated between $3.7 billion and $5.5 billion, said catastrophe-modeling firm AIR Worldwide May 9 in a press release.

The damage estimate for the April 22–28 storms was based on physical damage to residential, commercial and industrial properties and their contents and automobiles, according to the press release.

The storms that devastated the South are the second deadliest severe thunderstorm outbreaks in U.S. history, after the Tri-State tornado outbreak in 1925.

Thousands of disaster response personnel and inspectors remain in the affected areas to provide emergency relief and security, as well as perform damage assessments, clear debris and plan recovery efforts.

Alabama is the worst-affected state, where 38 of 67 counties have been declared disaster areas. More than 5,000 properties were destroyed in Tuscaloosa alone, a town that was particularly hard hit on April 27 by an EF-4 tornado with a track length of 80 miles.

Pastor Andy Heis of Desperation Church in Cullman, Ala., reflected on the damage caused in that area and surrounding communities.

“Cullman looks like a war zone,” he said. “Pleasant Grove, Tuscaloosa and Hackleburg also look like an atomic bomb went off. We had eight churches damaged and lots of houses destroyed (in Cullman).

“A lot of these houses had been here for 80 to 100 years, but they have been destroyed. The county is just unbelievable.”

Heis said volunteers from all over the country have come to the area to help clean up the damage.

“I saw a team from Michigan the other day that had come out to help,” Heis said. “We have teams of volunteers coming out from all over the nation — Missouri, California and other areas — to cut down trees and drag limbs. It’s amazing to see all the churches coming together to help the recovery process.”

The Mississippi Emergency Management Agency reported 2,527 homes damaged, including 993 severely damaged or destroyed, and 104 businesses damaged, including 62 severely damaged or destroyed.

The Smithfield tornado in Mississippi and the Hackleburg tornado in Alabama both hit on April 27. It was the first time in more than 20 years that two EF-5s occurred on the same day, Dr. Tim Doggett, principal scientist at AIR Worldwide said in a press release.

Sixty-six to 200 mph gusts swept the South, turning into 12 EF-4 tornados. Several of the tornados left paths 70 miles long, including the Tuscaloosa-Birmingham tornado which remained on the ground for 90 minutes, the release said.

Union students can also help in relief efforts by attending the Alabama Relief Project, hosted by “Care + 1.” This organization is a student-lead relief effort in partnership with UnWorthy Servants ministries that seeks to provide natural disaster victims throughout the Southeast with physical, emotional and spiritual support.

Josh Whitson, a former Union student and creator of the Alabama Relief Project on Union’s campus, said students can get involved by participating in a drive May 13-14 from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. He said to bring a case of water or Gatorade, plus $1 to help move the water. Most importantly, he said students can help by spreading the word.

“What is ultimately needed is awareness,” Whitson said. “For the urgency required by such tragedies is often greater than we are willing to grant. People are in desperate need of supplies, and we want to help them begin to rebuild their lives. Involving personal congregations in the process will also add to the support we can raise, and we are happy to get their contributions where they need to go.”

The deadline for the water drive is May 14 at 9 p.m. However, Whitson said projects of similar structure are currently in the preparation stage and will be posted on the group’s site as they progress.

Donations are accepted and 100 percent of everything given will be given to people in the affected communities.

Kitchen table chairs remain untouched while a car rests in the rubble of a Rosedale Court home in Tuscaloosa, Ala., after an EF-4 tornado came through the area April 27, leaving many parts of Tuscaloosa in shambles. | Photo by Abigail Harris

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