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Record 312 twisters in single day, US says

Image: Map of tornado paths
Bright reds, oranges and yellows show tracks of where rotation was strongest as detected by NWS Doppler radars during the tornado outbreak last week.NOAA
/ Source: staff and news service reports

It looks like last week's tornado outbreak was the biggest on record for a single 24-hour period, federal experts said Monday.

Preliminary estimates counted 312 tornadoes from 8 a.m. ET on April 27 to 8 a.m. on April 28, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said. That's far above the previous record of 148 twisters in 1974.

Over a 48-hour window, the total appears to be 362, NOAA stated.

An earlier statement had put the estimate at 226 tornadoes during the 24-hour window, and 312 over 48 hours.

April also set a record for most tornadoes in a single month — more than 600, NOAA said, compared with the previous record of 542 in May 2003.

Aprils over the last decade have averaged 161 tornadoes, NOAA added.

In Alabama, where the worst of the deaths and destruction happened, federal disaster relief offices on Monday were helping people navigate the red tape of applying for aid while shelters were providing free haircuts and eye clinics.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has set up offices in Alabama and expects to open one soon in Mississippi. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano toured parts of both states a day earlier and pledged support.

"This is not going to be a quick comeback or an immediate (recovery) but it will be, in my view, a complete one," she said in shattered Smithville, Miss., where little was left standing.

Last week's storms flattened homes and killed 342 across seven states. Several hundred are listed as missing.

Thousands were injured, though several days later most tornado-related injuries had been tended to.

On Monday, workers at a shelter in Tuscaloosa were sorting prescription drugs and for folks who have lost the medications that help keep them well.

"They're on chronic medications, and their prescriptions are gone," said Dr. Beth Western, who volunteered Monday at a shelter in Tuscaloosa. Some need medicine for conditions such as high blood pressure, cholesterol or diabetes. "They need something to get them through until they can go see their physician."

Amy Hall, 23, limped through the shelter with a broken foot, cradling her 11-month-old daughter. She was concerned about her 2-year-old son, who broke his nose and bruised a lung when their home was lifted off its foundation and tossed a block away. He spent two days in the hospital, and Hall said the family was getting excellent care at the shelter.

"I'm getting everything, probably even more than I expected," she said Monday.

In Pleasant Grove, hundreds of cases of bottled water were piled in the parking lot of a Baptist church, which had enough supplies to serve three hot meals a day to power crews, volunteers and residents.

Michalle Treadaway, who has been staying in her home even though part of the roof was torn off and the foundation was damaged, said she hasn't gotten much help from FEMA yet. When she called to report her damage because she had no insurance, she said the person she spoke to couldn't give her an idea of what to do next.

In the meantime, she's been relying on the volunteers in town, who come by in cars, golf carts, ATVs and on foot several times an hour to offer her cold water, canned food and snacks.

"I'm worried when they go away, there will be nothing," Treadaway said.

Over the weekend in Phil Campbell in northwestern Alabama, volunteers in golf carts zipped down streets with coolers of water and boxes of sausage biscuits. By noon, the smell of hot dogs grilling replaced the disaster smells of pine trees and diesel fuel from a few days before as volunteers worked to feed as many people as they could in three different parts of the town of about 1,100.

Elsewhere, church groups and congregations have been central to the relief effort. Some churches were wiped out. Some of those left standing have become headquarters for rebuilding.

American Christian Academy, a private school in Tuscaloosa, hosted a service Sunday at a football stadium within walking distance of neighborhoods where several churches were wiped out. The school distributed food, clothes, Bibles and other supplies to residents who came to worship.

"We're hoping to feed them and give them some spiritual food," said Rob Cain, the school's athletic director and campus pastor.

Lisa Thompson, 37, her fiance and her daughter came to the service because they don't know if their church, College Hill Baptist Church, survived. They haven't made it past the police checkpoints that have sealed off the area.

"My faith is stronger now than ever," she said. "I know God will test you, but it can't be nothing but stronger."

Thompson, whose home in a different part of Tuscaloosa was destroyed by the tornado, said she has found strength in the help that her family has received from volunteers who flocked to the city after the storm. She hoped to volunteer her own time at the school.

"I had to do something," she said. "How can I not? We're still here."

Disaster-relief groups from various denominations were quick to arrive in shattered neighborhoods. For Macolee Muhammed, the first volunteer who emerged was Dustin Casey from Southern Baptist Disaster Relief.

Muhammed accepted the prayer of a relief worker who stopped by what was left of her Birmingham home. It didn't matter that she was Muslim and he was a Southern Baptist.

The 61-year-old was full of worries: Were the power lines strewn around the neighborhood live? Can the federal government help her? She told Casey she hoped she wasn't going insane.

"I haven't slept since April 27th," she said.

Casey assured her that her reaction was normal for the circumstances.

"There is hope," Casey said. "One day at a time is what you're going to have to do. This is a life-changing experience."

Muhammed said she had no job or insurance for her house: "For me to start all over, it would be like me being a hobo."

Casey suggested they pray, and Muhammed agreed. Casey thanked God for sparing her life and prayed she would be given hope and see "there is a light at the end of the tunnel."

"Amen," Muhammed said.