Nightly News   |  April 29, 2011

Surveying Alabama's tornado-ravaged landscape

The sounds of heavy equipment working through rubble left behind in the Alabama tornado's path of destruction couldn't drown out the sounds of grief. NBC's Lester Holt reports.

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This content comes from Closed Captioning that was broadcast along with this program.

>>> and good evening from a ravaged tuscaloosa, alabama , tonight. the center of an epic tornado outbreak . the worst since the depression era in this country, and now a tragedy spread over seven states. beyond the pictures of the damage, like the scene behind us we can show you, we have found perhaps a better way to show you how massive this tornado was. a satellite picture from space, when you look closely, you can see in brown the path the funnel carved in the earth from the lower left to the upper right and right through where we're standing now. the image is remarkable, and so is this, the fact that you can now see downtown tuscaloosa from suburbs like the one we're in now, and that hasn't been possible in some places since about the 1860s . sadly, it's only possible now because the vegetation and the buildings are gone across about a half-mile-wide band. we have a huge team on the ground here throughout this region to cover this story. headed by lester holt , who is here with us tonight. lester, good evening.

>> reporter: good evening to you. officially, they're still searching for survivors, but the fact of the matter is at this point, there's growing anxiety for those who remain unaccounted for. since tuesday, there have been reports of 232 tornadoes across seven states. those storms have killed at least 328 people. across alabama , the sounds of heavy equipment at work could barely mask the sounds of grief.

>> homes just leveled. piles of rubble.

>> reporter: from the air over alabama , it's a clear, almost surgical path of destruction . from the ground, where president obama met survivors today, a nightmarish landscape.

>> i have never seen destruction like this.

>> cadaver dogs sniffed out the dead in alabama , which bore the most fay ttalities at 220.

>> we worked all night, trying to get people out of the houses. that's about all we could do.

>> reporter: tennessee and mississippi each reported more than 30 dead. the trail of death extends as far north as virginia. national guard troops have been deployed across the region. places used to tornadoes, but not like these. hugging the ground for long distances. some churning for up to 200 miles per hour. for more than a day, sandra roberts couldn't find her mother who lived alone in this small house. that was a tough 24 hours wasn't it?

>> yes, sir.

>> reporter: what was it like when you finally heard from her?

>> tears of joy.

>> reporter: today, they were reunited at the home of a friend who took her in, jeanette barnes recalled her harrowing ordeal.

>> they dug me out of a hole through the back. i just thank the lord that somebody came and got me.

>> reporter: in tennessee today, people waited for hours for gas because so many gas stations have been without power. officials now say fewer than 400,000 customers in stricken areas are still in the dark though many no longer have homes, they are determined to move forward and celebrate what they do have.

>> i'm just so blessed to be here. thank you!

>> reporter: the high death toll even mow shocking when you consider the storm that came through this neighborhood. there was about a 24-minute warning for residents, but as one expert forecaster pointed out, 24 minutes is enough time to hunker down, but not enough time to leave the area particularly with the tornado the size of the one that came through here.

>> that's absolutely right, thus the stories and the scenes we're here covering. lester holt heading up the coverage here tonight,