SCALOOSA, Ala. (AP) - Southerners found their emergency safety net shredded Friday as they tried to emerge from the nation's deadliest tornado disaster since the Great Depression.
Emergency buildings are wiped out. Bodies are stored in refrigerated trucks. Authorities are begging for such basics as flashlights. In one neighborhood, the storms even left firefighters
to work without a truck.
The death toll from Wednesday's storms reached 329 across seven states, including 238 in Alabama, making it the deadliest U.S. tornado outbreak since March 1932, when another Alabama storm killed 332 people. Tornadoes that swept across the South and Midwest in April 1974 left 315 people dead.
Hundreds if not thousands of people were injured Wednesday – 990 in Tuscaloosa alone - and as many as 1 million Alabama homes and businesses remained without power.
Obama visits disaster areas
The scale of the disaster astonished President Barack Obama when he arrived in the state Friday.
"I've never seen devastation like this," he said, standing in bright sunshine amid the wreckage in Tuscaloosa, where at least 45 people were killed and entire neighborhoods were flattened.
Mayor Walt Maddox called it "a humanitarian crisis" for his city of more than 83,000. Maddox said up to 446 people were unaccounted for in the city, though he added that many of those reports probably were from people who have since found their loved ones but have not notified authorities. Cadaver-detecting dogs were deployed in the city Friday but they had not found any remains, Maddox said.
During the mayor's news conference, a man asked him for help getting into his home, and broke down as he told his story.
"You have the right to cry," Maddox told him. "And I can tell you the people of Tuscaloosa are crying with you."
At least one tornado - a 205 mph monster that left at least 13 people dead in Smithville, Miss. - ranked in the National Weather Service's most devastating category, EF-5. Meteorologist Jim LaDue said he expects "many more" of Wednesday's tornadoes to receive that same rating, with winds topping 200 mph.
After losses, families threatened by looting
Tornadoes struck with unexpected speed in several states, and the difference between life and death was hard to fathom. Four people died in Bledsoe County, Tenn., but a family survived being tossed across a road in their modular home, which was destroyed, Mayor Bobby Collier said.
By Friday, residents whose homes were blown to pieces were seeing their losses worsen - not by nature, but by man. In Tuscaloosa and other cities, looters have been picking through the
wreckage to steal what little the victims have left.
"The first night they took my jewelry, my watch, my guns," Shirley Long said Friday. "They were out here again last night doing it again."
Overwhelmed Tuscaloosa police imposed a curfew and got help from National Guard troops to try to stop the scavenging.
Along their flattened paths, the twisters blew down police and fire stations and other emergency buildings along with homes, businesses, churches and power infrastructure. The number of buildings lost, damage estimates and number of people left homeless remained unclear two days later, in part because the storm also ravaged communications systems.
Emergency services have difficulties helping survivors
Tuscaloosa's emergency management center was destroyed, so officials used space in one of the city's most prominent buildings - the University of Alabama's Bryant-Denny Stadium - as a
substitute before moving operations to the Alabama Fire College. Less than two weeks ago, the stadium hosted more than 90,000 fans for the football team's spring intrasquad Red-White Game.
Also wiped out was a Salvation Army building, costing Tuscaloosa much-needed shelter space. And that's just part of the problem in providing emergency aid, said Sister Carol Ann Gray of the local Catholic Social Services office.
"It has been extremely difficult to coordinate because so many people have been affected - some of the very same people you'd look to for assistance," Gray said.
Emergency services were stretched particularly thin about 90 miles to the north in the demolished town of Hackleburg, Ala., where officials were keeping the dead in a refrigerated truck amid
a body bag shortage. At least 27 people were killed there and the search for missing people continued, with FBI agents fanning out to local hospitals to help.
Damage in Hackleburg was catastrophic, said Stanley Webb, chief agent in the county's drug task force. "When we talk about these homes, they are not damaged. They are gone," he said.
But in Hackleburg as in Tuscaloosa, emergency workers had more to do than aid suffering victims. People have looted a demolished Wrangler jeans distribution center, and authorities locked up drugs from a destroyed pharmacy in a bank.
False rumors, meanwhile, were sweeping the town. People were pushing debris from their yards into streets because they heard they were supposed to and filling up their bathtubs with water
because they heard the city would cut off the supply.
Kathy McDonald glanced around her damaged town and quietly wept. Her family's furniture store, which sold tables and couches for decades, was torn apart. "I just can't understand this. Are people coming to help us?" she said. "We feel all alone."
Alabama emergency management officials said Friday that the state had 238 confirmed deaths. There were 34 deaths in Mississippi, 34 in Tennessee, 15 in Georgia, five in Virginia, two in Louisiana and one in Kentucky. Friday night, Obama declared Mississippi to be a disaster area, qualifying six counties in that state for federal funding.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency has responded to all affected areas and has officials on the ground in Alabama, Mississippi, Kentucky, Georgia and Tennessee, Director Craig Fugate said. State and local authorities remain in charge of response and recovery efforts, Fugate said.
Volunteers arrived from as far as Mobile - some 250 miles away - to deliver food, water and fuel and help with search and rescue. The National Guard closed the town to outsiders, trying to keep out gawkers and looters.