Birmingham-- Several southeastern states are digging out today after a violent storm system that spawned dozens of tornadoes. Alabama was hardest hit. The full scope of the devastation is still unknown, but at least 162 people are dead in Alabama and thousands of homes, businesses and government buildings were destroyed.
Birmingham took a direct hit from a large tornado that skirted just north of downtown. WBHM's Tanya Ott spent this morning visiting affected areas.
Joyce and William Thompson have lived in the Smithfield Estates neighborhood for decades. They've weathered bad storms here before - including a bad tornado that hit Smithfield in April of 1977. But, they say, this one was different.
"It lasted about 3 seconds, zwoo, after that it was gone"
"And then when we got up, came out, all we could hear was glass cracking and stuff and by the time we opened the door. This is what we saw."
Everywhere ... houses flattened, trees lying across the street with power lines, the menacing smell of gas. They walked more than mile on foot shelter at a local school, then came back this morning to check out their house.
The living room looks pristine. A large white teddy bear sits in the middle of a golden couch. The only sign of trouble is the Easter candy bowl that's fallen from the entry table. But venture down a hallway to the kitchen and it's a different story.
"The ceiling was falling in when we were running out. I had just changed my kitchen from Easter to memorial day. Now, the ceiling is down. The lights in all the top of the house is out. The window is out."
Outside, former state representative John Hilliard walks the street talking to his neighbors.
"It looks like Iraq, Sudan. You know. Just how bad it is. I can only say that there are houses that are exploded. The churches in this area are demolished. It's extremely bad."
Helicopters fly overhead, assessing the damage. Emergency responders go door to door. They have to. Most of the residents here are retired. They tend to lock the door, then head to the basement. Police are still finding people hiding out ... and people trapped in debris.
A few blocks away, cops have another problem on their hands. People are picking through the rubble of a gas station that was demolished. They're pulling out all the unbroken bottles of beer and wine. An officer confronts a woman loading garbage bags full of bottles into her car.
"All you're stealing is beer. Why don't you steal water or something you need?"
The officer tells me the gas station owner said it was fine for residents to take water or food if they need it. But not alcohol.
The ground was already saturated from an earlier storm. So when the tornado rolled through instead of snapping branches, it uprooted entire trees. Omar Berry and four of his friends are ready to get to work.
"We just came from home depot, got a couple of chain saws, so we could come out here and help people. Major damage out here."
This neighborhood will need a lot of help rebuilding. John Hilliard, the former state lawmaker, says it will be a long, expensive process.
"Some of these folks are out of jobs. Couldn't pay their homeowners insurance took, so it's going to be a long, long time. It's going to be rough."
Two thousand National Guard troops have been called in to assist in search and rescue across Alabama. President Obama will visit tomorrow to tour the damage areas.
~ Tanya Ott, April 28, 2011