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Even rescuers hobbled by worst twisters since 1932

By Jay Reeves

Associated Press

Published: Friday, April 29 2011 5:11 p.m. MDT

A fire station was destroyed in nearby Alberta City, one of the city's worst-hit neighborhoods. The firefighters survived, but damage to their equipment forced them to begin rescue operations without a fire truck, city Fire Chief Alan Martin said.

Martin said the department is running normally and has since deployed a backup vehicle to serve the neighborhood. "In reality, it's just an extension of what we do every day," he said.

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.

Gail Enlow was in town looking for her aunt, Eunice Cooper, who is in her 70s. She wiped away tears as she pointed to the twisted mess that's left of the housing project where Cooper lived.

"Nobody's seen her," she said, trying to hold back the sobs. "She can just barely get around and she would need help."

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.

Fire Chief Steve Hood said he desperately wanted flashlights for the town's 1,500 residents because he doesn't want them using candles that could ignite their homes.

In Cullman, a town about 50 miles north of Birmingham, workers have been putting in long hours to clean up debris and exhausted police officers face the same problems as the people they are sworn to protect. Emergency responders have waiting in hourslong lines with other drivers to get gas at stations without power.

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 228 confirmed deaths. There were 34 deaths in Mississippi, 34 in Tennessee, 15 in Georgia, five in Virginia, two in Louisiana and one in Kentucky.

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.

In the Birmingham suburb of Pleasant Grove, where 10 people died, building contractors used heavy equipment Friday to help clear debris from impassable streets.

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.

Police Chief Robert Knight said perhaps a quarter of the town of 10,000 is wiped out.

"We're having a hard time recovering," he said. But he vowed that residents will rebuild.

"We'll do it. We'll do it," he said. "We just will. People out here are resilient. It's a good city."

Bluestein reported from Cullman. Associated Press writers Holbrook Mohr in Hackleburg, Jeffrey Collins and Chris Hawley in Rainsville, Michael Rubinkam in Pleasant Grove, Michael Kunzelman in Tuscaloosa, John Christoffersen in Birmingham, Phillip Rawls in Montgomery, Kristi Eaton in Norman, Okla., and Maryann Mrowca in Atlanta contributed to this report.

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