Image: Dan Turner takes a moment to pray in the demolished sanctuary
Dave Martin  /  AP
Alberta Baptist Church Buildings and Grounds chairperson Dan Turner takes a moment to pray in the demolished sanctuary of the church in Tuscaloosa, Ala. on Sunday, May 1. About 100 church members gathered outside the church Sunday morning for a brief service before helping their neighbors.
updated 5/1/2011 5:57:19 PM ET 2011-05-01T21:57:19

Thousands of people still reeling from the second-deadliest day of tornadoes in U.S. history prepared to mourn the hundreds killed as a Sunday of somber church services proceeded across the U.S. South.

All told, at least 342 people died across seven states, including 250 in Alabama. Thousands more were injured.

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.

In Cordova, Rachel Mitchell lamented the loss of her hometown as she knows it. She 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.

Image: Alberta Baptist Church members form a circle in the parking lot of their destroyed church
Dave Martin  /  AP
Alberta Baptist Church members form a circle in the parking lot of their destroyed church in Tuscaloosa, Ala. on Sunday.

"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.

Seeking to speed recovery, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and other Cabinet members toured 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.

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.

Story: Heartbreak for Ala. family in wake of 2 twisters

In Ringgold, Georgia, 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 has 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, Alabama. 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, Georgia, and Emily Wagster Pettus in Jackson, Mississippi, contributed to this report.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Rebuilding, recovery in full swing

  1. Closed captioning of: Rebuilding, recovery in full swing

    >> the historic outbreak of tornadoes that swept across the south, leveling communities, killing 342 people, we learn today still hundreds of others are officially listed as missing, unaccounted for. four days in it's still difficult for us to show you how much was lost. take a look. one tornado in tuscaloosa cutting across several miles through heavily populated areas. every pile of brick, every pile of wood here tells a story. this was a japanese restaurant . 20 people took refuge in the office. it's still standing . ten others took refuge in a cooler. they all survived as the building literally disent grated around them. officially 39 people have died here in us the tuscaloosa . there's a growing fear that number of will go up. john?

    >> there are so many stories here. remarkable survival. devastating loss. people tonight are pulling together, picking up and trying to move forward.

    >> reporter: a show of force today from the obama administration as five agency heads, including three cabinet secretaries , got a first-hand look at the damage and the needs.

    >> i don't think words can fairly express the level of devastation here.

    >> reporter: in heart-hit tuscaloosa , officials released the names of the 39 confirmed dead . their ages ranging from 95 years to 8 months. more than 450 are still missing.

    >> my heart tells me that we will have many more fatalities.

    >> reporter: the work of rebuilding power grids shifted into high gear . across the south at least 650,000 customers remain without electricity.

    >> reporter: at tuscaloosa st. john baptist church , a spiritual rebuilding. 14 members of the congregation lost their homes but none of them lost their lives.

    >> the tornado had no addresses. amen. no addresses were on there. there were no black and whites.

    >> reporter: in the alberta city neighborhood, 14 people rode out the tornado in the basement of this home and escaped with just scratches.

    >> when we first stood out and started screaming, because we knew our house was gone, but we looked around and everybody's house was gone.

    >> reporter: the university of alabama 's school year was cut short by the tornado. but students are sticking around to run a relief operation. since they started on friday, more than 12,000 meals cooked, packed and delivered. other donations of diapers, toiletries, canned goods, sorted, packed, out the door for delivery almost as fast as they come in. the heart is the power of twitter.

    >> we need white bread . ten minutes later a man will show up and say i have $100 worth of sliced bread . it's the way our generation is and our community responds.

    >> reporter: a single facebook post sent volunteers descending on an elementary school . they recovered books from the rubble of the school's library before tomorrow's expected rain.

    >> i was hoping to get a handful of people i knew to help out. i got here at 10:30 when i said and there were already ten people out here working. people i didn't know. strangers.

    >> reporter: it's not just local folks who are lining up to help, lester. the city's volunteer hotline has been getting calls as far away as new hampshire and california, all with one question. what can we do to help?

    >> what an incredible outpouring. john


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