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Sunday in the South: Mourning for tornado victims

Published: Sunday, May 1 2011 3:47 a.m. MDT

In this photo provided by Samford University, Annie Criswell and Jessica Fleming sort clothes for distribution to tornado victims in Pratt City, Ala., Saturday, April 30, 2011. Criswell and Fleming were among several Samford University students who volunteered at Scott Elementary School.  (Samford University, Caroline Summers, Associated Press) In this photo provided by Samford University, Annie Criswell and Jessica Fleming sort clothes for distribution to tornado victims in Pratt City, Ala., Saturday, April 30, 2011. Criswell and Fleming were among several Samford University students who volunteered at Scott Elementary School. (Samford University, Caroline Summers, Associated Press)

CORDOVA, Ala. — Rachel Mitchell drove through what was left of her small northwest Alabama town, pointing out the places where familiar landmarks have been all but obliterated by one of last week's tornadoes.

The Methodist church on the hilltop was totaled, its steeple lopped off. The stately former hotel her great-grandmother once owned was broken and in pieces. And the potent tornado punched a hole through buildings all around.

"This is really hard. This is where I grew up and now nothing is here that I remember," said Mitchell, a 19-year-old college student.

As Mitchell lamented the loss of her hometown as she knows it, thousands of others still reeling from the second-deadliest day of twisters in U.S. history prepared to mourn the hundreds killed as a Sunday of somber church services dawned across the South. All told, at least 342 people died across seven states, including 250 in Alabama. Thousands more were injured.

In this photo provided by Samford University, Hannah Dawson, left, hands off a case of water to Ryan Livingston while helping with relief efforts for tornado victims in Pratt City, Ala., Saturday, April 30, 2011. Dawson, Livingston, and Aaron Roper, far right, were among several Samford University students who volunteered their time at Scott Elementary School helping victims of Wednesday's, April 27, deadly tornadoes.  (Samford University, Caroline Summers, Associated Press) In this photo provided by Samford University, Hannah Dawson, left, hands off a case of water to Ryan Livingston while helping with relief efforts for tornado victims in Pratt City, Ala., Saturday, April 30, 2011. Dawson, Livingston, and Aaron Roper, far right, were among several Samford University students who volunteered their time at Scott Elementary School helping victims of Wednesday's, April 27, deadly tornadoes. (Samford University, Caroline Summers, Associated Press)

In Rainsville, Ala., Deacon Calvin Thomas said leaders of the Victory Baptist Church were still searching for a place to hold Sunday services after the church was shattered, the broken bricks littering a parking lot where a picture of Jesus praying was found amid the rubble.

"We're still not sure what we're going to do," Thomas said. "One way or another, we're going to keep going forward."

Across the region, Sunday church services were expected to fill with those mourning the dead and seeking healing and consoling as a community.

These communities are now trying to recover, but it's not easy. Nothing is as it was. Loved ones are gone; neighbors are missing. Search operations continue for the missing, and curfews are in force to prevent looting. Thousands of homes are still without power.

Seeking to speed recovery, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and other Cabinet members were scheduled to tour the debris-littered landscape in Alabama and Mississippi later Sunday. President Barack Obama, who visited Alabama on Friday, already has signed disaster declarations for those two states and Georgia.

Shayla Underwood, of Atlanta,  helps recover her grandfathers' belongings Saturday, April 30, 2011 after his homes was destroyed in the Pratt City section of Birmingham, Ala. Tornadoes hit the area hard last Wednesday.  (John Bazemore, Associated Press) Shayla Underwood, of Atlanta, helps recover her grandfathers' belongings Saturday, April 30, 2011 after his homes was destroyed in the Pratt City section of Birmingham, Ala. Tornadoes hit the area hard last Wednesday. (John Bazemore, Associated Press)

Meanwhile, the Red Cross has opened emergency shelters and the enormous task for authorities of finding more permanent housing for the thousands without homes now begins in earnest this week.

Authorities also are seeking the missing, aided by cadaver-sniffing dogs, amid fears the death toll could yet rise.

Tuscaloosa Mayor Walt Maddux said late Saturday that 434 people were unaccounted for, down from 570 hours earlier.

"My sense is that we will have more fatalities," Maddox said.

Maddox said the storms had damaged more than 5,700 buildings and homes in the Tuscaloosa area alone. Mississippi emergency officials said its latest survey showed damage to more than 2,500 homes and 100 businesses there. Virginia officials reported that last week's storms damaged about 500 structures in five counties, destroying 55.

Survivors counted themselves fortunate.

Willa Ibach looks up the ceiling of her fallen kitchen in Flintstone, Ga. on Saturday, April 30, 2011.     Ibach's home was damaged by a tornado on Wednesday night.  There were no injuries at her home but the house is condemned.   President Barack Obama issued a federal disaster declaration for Catoosa and six other counties hit by the storm.   (Billy Weeks, Associated Press) Willa Ibach looks up the ceiling of her fallen kitchen in Flintstone, Ga. on Saturday, April 30, 2011. Ibach's home was damaged by a tornado on Wednesday night. There were no injuries at her home but the house is condemned. President Barack Obama issued a federal disaster declaration for Catoosa and six other counties hit by the storm. (Billy Weeks, Associated Press)

In Ringgold, Ga., 66-year-old Mary Lou Brown survived a tornado Wednesday night that killed eight people as it rolled over her neighborhood. As she fled down the stairs of her home for protection, a large oak fell onto the wooden roof over her sturdy front porch.

"It's a blessing. My daddy built me this house," said Brown, who began crying. "If I had not had that porch on there, it just would have gone through and I would probably have been killed."

Brown and her neighbors marshaled volunteer chain saw crews to slice up felled trees over the weekend. Parts of Ringgold still lacked power. Police were blocking roads. Residents said opportunistic contractors were on the prowl, and there was a shortage of heavy equipment.

In Alabama, similar scenes played out as residents struggled back to their feet. Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley had dispatched 2,000 National Guard troops around Alabama to help residents and keep the peace. Many blocked off roads or patrolled neighborhoods to keep away gawkers and looters.

Several Alabama National Guard troops helped Carletta Wooley, 27, sift through debris for any of her possessions. Wooley thanked a guardsman who handed her a photo of her 9-year-old son, A.J.

"I'm going to cry," she said. "It's a great help. They've reached a lot of things I couldn't get to on my own."

Down the street, Kevin Rice wasn't as lucky. He couldn't find anything he owned in the area where his trailer once stood. His family is staying at a motel as long as they can afford it. He's not sure where they'll go after that.

"It's just a hurting feeling," he said. "I don't know what to say."

Staff Sgt. Matthew Burbank said he and two other Guard troops found a tattered American flag in the rubble and flew it from a nearby pole.

As some tried to clear the rubble and sort through belongings, others took on the task of burying the dozens who died in weekend funerals.

But planning funerals was a struggle for many as they dealt with destroyed homes. There were also 35 deaths in Mississippi, 34 in Tennessee, 15 in Georgia, five in Virginia, two in Louisiana and one in Kentucky.

"A few of the families I met with, they've lost everything," said Jason Wyatt, manager of Tuscaloosa Memorial Chapel. "It's hard for me to hold my composure. They don't have clothing or anything."

Bluestein reported from Cordova. Kunzelman reported from Tuscaloosa, Ala. Associated Press writers Jeffrey Collins in Phil Campbell, Christopher Hawley and Michael Rubinkam in Rainsville, Jay Reeves and John Christofferson in Tuscaloosa, Ray Henry in Ringgold, Ga. and Emily Wagster Pettus in Jackson, Miss. contributed to this report.

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