US Confronts Its Worst Disaster Since Katrina - Spokane, North Idaho News & Weather KHQ.com

US Confronts Its Worst Disaster Since Katrina, Death Toll Over 300

UPDATE: (AP) - Death toll at 318 from devastating southern tornados; most from twister outbreak since 1932.

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. - President Barack Obama got a sobering, close-up look Friday at the nation's most horrific tornado damage in decades, as crews continued to look for victims and the death toll hovered around 300.

"I've never seen devastation like this," Obama said after touring the Tuscaloosa area. "It is heartbreaking."

Visible from Air Force One as Obama neared Tuscaloosa: a long swath of tornado damage that looked like a wide, angry scar across the land.

And as the president moved by motorcade through communities and business districts, suddenly the devastation was everywhere: flattened buildings, snapped trees, collapsed car washes and heaps of rubble, twisted metal and overturned cars as far as the eye could see.

First lady Michelle Obama was at the president's side as he offered condolences.

Late Thursday, the president signed a disaster declaration for Alabama to provide federal aid to those who seek it.

The president's arrival drew a muted response from Tuscaloosa resident Derek Harris, who was pushing a grocery buggy down a street where virtually every home was heavily damaged. The 47-year-old and his wife hoped to use the cart to salvage a few belongings from his home.

"Hopefully he'll give us some money to start over," Harris said of Obama. "Is FEMA here? The only place I'm hearing anything is at the Red Cross center."

Some were more upbeat about the president's visit, including 21-year-old Turner Woods, who watched Obama's motorcade pass on its way to tour damaged areas. "It's just really special having the president come here," she said. "It will bring more attention to this disaster and help get more help here."

Body bag shortage in one town
The situation was dire about 90 miles to the north in the demolished town of Hackleburg, Ala., where officials were keeping bodies in a refrigerated truck amid a body bag shortage. At least 27 are dead there, and searches for the missing continue.

The only grocery store, the fire and police departments and the school are destroyed. There's no power, communications, water or other services. Fire Chief Steve Hood said he desperately wants scores of flashlights because he doesn't want people using candles due to the fire hazard.

"We don't have water to put out any fires," he said.

People have looted a demolished Wrangler jeans plant, and authorities locked up drugs from a destroyed pharmacy in a bank vault, said Stanley Webb, chief agent in the county's drug task force.

"If people steal, we are not playing around. They will go to jail," he said.

With at least 210 deaths, Alabama bore the brunt of the devastation. More than 300 people are feared dead across six states in Wednesday's outbreak, with some estimates putting the death toll as high as 319.

As of Friday morning, the official death toll, assembled by NBC News from individual state totals, numbered 298.

The powerful tornadoes — more than 160 reported in total — combined with storms to cut a swath of destruction heading west to east. It was the worst U.S. natural disaster since Hurricane Katrina in 2005, which killed up to 1,800 people.

"I think this is going to rank up as one of the worst tornado outbreaks in U.S. history," said Federal Emergency Management Agency Director Craig Fugate.

There were still unconfirmed reports late Thursday of "entire towns flattened" in northern parts of the state, Fugate said.

"We're still trying to get people through rescues and locate the missing," he said.

Those who took shelter as the storms descended trickled back to their homes, ducking police roadblocks and fallen limbs and power lines to reclaim their belongings.

They struggled with no electricity and little help from stretched-thin law enforcement. And they were frustrated by the near-constant presence of gawkers who drove by in search of a cellphone camera picture — or worse, a trinket to take home.

"It's just devastation. I've never seen this," said Sen. Richard Shelby during a visit to storm-ravaged Tuscaloosa. "This is the worst tornado devastation I've ever seen." Click here to read more.

 

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