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Humor helps with twister cleanup

Residents crack jokes to keep from crying as they search for salvageable items among the rubble left by severe storms that killed 12 people over the weekend.
Image: Bret Ruschewski
Bret Ruschewski, the landlord of a bar destroyed by the twister in Yazoo City, Miss., explains Monday how a 500-pound trash container filled with empty beer bottles was flung around, sending bottles flying, some several miles away.Rogelio V. Solis / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Residents cracked jokes to keep from crying Monday as they searched for salvageable items among the rubble left by severe storms that killed 12 people over the weekend.

State officials were tallying the cost of the damage so they could ask for an emergency declaration from President Barack Obama, along with federal funds to help clean up the mess. The latest figures Monday were grim: In Missississippi alone, nearly 700 homes were damaged, 49 people injured and 10 killed. Two others died in storms in Alabama.

Nancy Luke stepped carefully through fallen cinderblocks, cracked mirrors and a broken disco ball in what used to be the bar she managed, Wendy's On the Hill. The bar was in the center of the mile-wide swath of destruction.

Luke said she and the owner, Wendy Douglas, have been joking with each other to fend off tears.

"She's a neat freak. This is usually the cleanest bar in town, I tell you," Luke said.

Most of the bar was obliterated, but the office and the restrooms still stood. Luke said she found three rolls of toilet paper still stacked in a pyramid on a tray in the women's room.

The tornado flung a blue metal trash container from outside the bar three miles away while dumping most of its contents next to the slab of the building: Dozens of brown Bud Light and Miller Lite beer bottles, most of which were unbroken.

Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour was spending part of the day in neighborhoods of his native Yazoo City talking privately with residents.

"When you know everybody, it's harder," said Barbour, whose home was undamaged in Saturday's tornado.

On Monday, the dead in Mississippi were also identified. County Coroner Keith Coleman identified the victims in his area as: Andra Patterson, 3 months; Tyanna Jobe, 9; Brittany Jobe, 14; Mary Yates, 58, and Bobby Yates, 57.

Wayne Allen Jr., a funeral director at Stricklin-King Funeral Home, identifed the Yazoo County victims as: James E. Harrison, 64; Elizabeth Nicole "Nikki" Bradshaw Carpenter, Carlton Gould and Stella Martin, whose ages he didn't have.

Carpenter, 31, left her job as a postal carrier to stay at home with her three children, ages 6 to 2, and planned to start nursing school next year, said her friend Elizabeth Tamar King.

"She was the best mom she could be," said King, who often babysat the boys. "She was a great person. If she could do anything to help you, she would."

The storm system began in Louisiana before cutting a path some 150 miles long through Mississippi and continuing to Alabama. Storm surveyors were working Monday to determine whether the damage was caused by a single tornado or multiple twisters.

National Weather Service meteorologist Ed Agre said tornado winds have been measured at 160 miles an hour along much of the path, with some areas hit with even stronger winds.

By comparison, the scale used to measure hurricane intensity tops off at a category for storms 155 mph and above. Hurricanes, however, cover a wider area.

"Tornadoes are on a much tighter scale, when the winds are twisting that fast. It's a bit more devastating to that location," he said.

Mississippi, like many other states, does not have a statewide method of alerting residents about severe weather, such as thunderstorms and tornadoes. That responsibility is often left up to local governments that rely on warning sirens, phone calls and radios after receiving an alert from the National Weather Service.

Many residents have said they were warned a tornado was coming by local television or other means. Lynn Cunningham didn't hear any sirens before the twister ripped off the roof of her home.

"My two boys were inside watching it on TV, but then the power went out right before it hit," Cunningham said.

Some people whose homes were hit hard managed to make it out safely, and were working to salvage what they could. Morgan Hayden and Joe Moton huddled with other relatives in the home's bathroom during the storm.

The 27-year-old Hayden and 31-year-old Moton had planned to marry in a small ceremony in Arkansas on Monday, but with little left besides the clothes on their backs, they weren't sure what to do.

"It'll work out, though," Hayden said as she treaded carefully through nails, broken glass and pink tufts of insulation on Sunday.