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Tornado Outbreak Leaves Wide Path Of Destruction

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

The South is reeling from one of the deadliest storms in U.S. history. Nearly 300 people are known to be dead in seven states, with hundreds more injured. Property damage is likely to reach into the billions.

In all, 160 tornadoes tore through southern states, leaving a wide path of destruction. President Obama tours the devastation today in Alabama, where entire communities are flattened. NPR's Debbie Elliott reports.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT: People in Tuscaloosa are still in a daze, trying to take in the enormous task before them.

(Soundbite of aircraft)

ELLIOTT: While elected officials fly over to survey the damage and talk about disaster declarations, storm survivors walk out of debris-laden neighborhoods carrying whatever belongings they can salvage a pair of tennis shoes, a cat in a pet carrier, a trash bag full of jeans. Tuscaloosa Mayor Walt Maddox.

Mayor WALT MADDOX (Tuscaloosa, Alabama): Some people designate this as a disaster. I think for the 93,000 citizens I represent, we would categorize this as a nightmare.

ELLIOTT: Search and rescue teams have yet to clear some parts of town, like Alberta City a working class community that has for the most part been leveled. Familiar landmarks are no more.

Ms. VERONICA MCCALL: It took away Alberta City. The Alberta city that I know, it will never be the same.

ELLIOTT: Veronica McCall and her six kids rode out the storm in the bathtub. But the house is too damaged to live in now, so she's trying to gather up what she can to take to her father's house.

Ms. MCCALL: Murals, my last supper picture, kids' blankets and clothes. Mostly - it was a lot of clothes, mostly.

ELLIOTT: It's all piled up in her front yard.

Ms. MCCALL: Some people just lost everything. They didn't have anything to salvage. I had some things I could go back and get. They have nothing to go back and get. And I just send my heart out to them, because I know what they're going through. I'm hurting with what I've lost. They've lost so much more.

ELLIOTT: Around the corner, Shannon Bosch is standing in red clay the foundation of what used to be her husband's childhood home. The three concrete front steps are still there, but the house has collapsed onto the one next door, leaving a giant pile of wooden slats, mattresses and household appliances. Bosch is trying to find a few things for her in-laws.

Ms. SHANNON BOSCH: We really just just came for clothes and medicine.

ELLIOTT: Her mother-in-law just filled about $800 worth of prescriptions, and she says her insurance won't pay to replace it. Bosch has pulled out dresser drawers, and her 71-year old father-in-law, Jeffrey Bosch, is trying on clothes to figure out what fits. He has bloody gashes on his legs and forehead.

Mr. JEFFREY BOSCH: It throwed me into the wall and then the wall fell on top of me, me and my wife. And then - blam. When I woke up, the thing was on top of me. I don't know what all was on top of us.

Ms. BOSCH: A rescue team found them underneath all that rubble over there, buried.

ELLIOTT: Shannon's husband Jeff arrived just in time to help dig his parents out. But he also made a grim discovery.

Mr. JEFF BOSCH: Right out here I about stepped on a board. When I looked down, there was a little kid under it.

ELLIOTT: It was the eight-year-old boy who lived next door. His mother's body was just a few yards away. Both perished in the storm. Searchers used a piece of debris as a stretcher to take the casualties away.

Others on this street are still unaccounted for. That nightmare scenario is playing out in more than a dozen other towns in Alabama. Shannon Bosch is thankful to be standing in the rubble.

Ms. BOSCH: We're blessed, because we have our family. And that's what I told God, just spare my family and everything else we can do without.

ELLIOTT: Bosch says now they have no choice but to pick up the pieces and keep going.

Debbie Elliott, NPR News, Tuscaloosa, Alabama.

INSKEEP: And we are, of course, continuing to report on the storm damage throughout this morning's program. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.