TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Where is Johnnie Brown’s sister? Or the friend Billie Sue Hall talked to every day? A week after tornadoes ripped neighborhoods to shreds across the South, there still are no answers.
It’s unclear how many people are missing across the seven states where 329 deaths have been reported. There are 25 unaccounted for in Tuscaloosa alone, the mayor says, but that number could be off because of the chaos the storm left behind.
Efforts to pin down the number of missing have been complicated by factors including multiple reports of the same missing person, or survivors who found shelter without contacting friends who reached out to police. Sometimes the police have only a first name.
“Obviously, there’s not a whole lot you can do with that information,” Tuscaloosa Police Chief Steven Anderson said Thursday.
Alabama officials are declining to say how many people could be missing statewide, and are now even keeping mum about the state’s official death toll as it re-examines the tally. They reduced the figure from 250 to 236 on Monday after accounting for a gruesome fact of the storm: Some victims had been counted more than once because parts of their bodies were found in more than one place.
The work of finding answers for families of the missing falls largely on the search and rescue teams combing the ruins of entire communities that were ripped from their foundations and thrown across hollows and hills on April 27.
On Thursday, the National Weather Service upgraded one of the tornadoes that hit Mississippi to the most powerful category: an EF-5, with winds topping 200 mph. Another Mississippi tornado in last week’s outbreak had already been classified as an EF-5. This is the first time on record that two EF-5 twisters hit Mississippi on the same day, and the first time it has happened to any U.S. state since a pair hit Kansas in 1990.
In Tuscaloosa, officials say at least 41 people were killed when an EF-4 tornado with winds up to 190 mph mowed down some of the city’s most densely populated neighborhoods.