Tornado victims see steady flow of aid

Posted May 02, 2011, at 8:50 p.m.
Last modified May 02, 2011, at 9:40 p.m.

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — In the tornado-shattered South, survivors are getting what they need — sometimes more than they ever expected. And it is coming from everywhere.

Volunteers in golf carts ferry sausage biscuits and bottled water to them. Federal workers are interviewing them so they can get emergency cash. And neighbors with chain saws roam devastated streets, cutting up downed trees.

Residents and elected officials praised churches, charities, volunteers and even the much maligned Federal Emergency Management Agency.

The second-deadliest tornado outbreak in U.S. history — and a record 226 in one day — killed 342 people and left stretches of the South in ruin. In a region that is all too familiar with fumbled emergency responses, residents from hardest-hit Alabama to Tennessee have seen a steady flow of aid.

By Monday, survivors could find a place to charge a dead cell phone or get a free haircut or restock on prescription medicine.

“I’m getting everything, probably even more than I expected,” said Amy Hall, 23, who limped through the shelter set up at a community center in Tuscaloosa, Ala., with a broken foot, cradling her 11-month-old daughter.

Her 2-year-old son broke his nose and bruised a lung when a twister tossed their home a block away. He spent two days in the hospital. Hall said the family was getting excellent care at the shelter where 240 were sleeping and scores more sought other services.

In Tennessee, where 34 people died, Marvin Quinn, 79, collected broken jars of home-canned peaches and pickles from the rubble. He said relief workers had been keeping him and his wife well fed.

“I’ve been eating more in the last four days than I ever have,” he said. “Every time I turn around there’s someone with food, water, Gatorade.”

Unlike Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the response to the latest natural disaster has worked because agencies at different levels of government are working together and are telling residents where they can get help, emergency management consultant Barry Scanlon said.

“They seem to be working well together,” said Scanlon, president of Witt Associates and former FEMA worker.

Brendal O’Rourke was amazed by the speed with which the agency responded to her 80-year-old mother, Willie Taylor, who lived in a Tuscaloosa apartment building that was ripped to pieces by a twister.

Her mother needs money to pay for a storage unit for her remaining belongings, plus moving expenses, gasoline and replacing household items.

O’Rourke said she called a FEMA telephone number that flashed on the TV screen shortly after President Barack Obama visited Tuscaloosa on Friday, and she got through on the first try. Federal workers called the next morning.

“They did the interview with her on a laptop, and he said it was like filing you taxes electronically,” O’Rourke said.

The money should be in her bank account by Friday.

FEMA’s director, Craig Fugate, arrived in Alabama on Thursday morning, and the agency has set up recovery stations across the region. Over the weekend, Mississippi’s governor and Birmingham’s mayor thanked the federal government for its quick response.

“We want to thank them for being ‘Johnny on the spot’ from the beginning,” Birmingham Mayor Williams Bell said.

On Monday, meteorologists said that the outbreak was bigger than previously thought: There were 312 tornadoes during last week’s outbreak, including a record-setting 226 in one day. The largest previous number on record in one event occurred from April 3-4, 1974, with 148 tornadoes.

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