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Little By Little, Huntsville, Ala., Returns To Normal

LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

The hundreds of tornados that swept across the Southeast last week inflicted death and destruction throughout the region. The impact will be felt for months or even years, as hard hit communities struggle to rebuild and local economies work to recover.

In Alabama, we've reported on the major damage suffered by Tuscaloosa and Birmingham. Today, we look at Huntsville, one of the state's economic hubs, which also took a direct hit. NPR's Alex Kellogg reports.

ALEX KELLOGG: It took a week, but most schools reopened yesterday in Huntsville. Still, many people are spending their days doing the little things to help with the recovery effort.

Unidentified Woman: What am I getting - a hamburger or hot dog?

Mr. ROBERT SCHUMANN (General manager, Firehouse Pub): No, you're getting a hot dog.

Unidentified Woman: OK.

KELLOGG: Robert Schumann is the general manager of the Firehouse Pub. He was grilling hot dogs, hamburgers and chicken for scores of civilian electricians working to restore power to Redstone Arsenal, a massive Army post.

Mr. SCHUMANN: People will ask, what were you doing when all this was going on? And we know what we were doing. We were feeding some folks. Doing our part.

KELLOGG: Redstone is the center of testing, development and support for the Army's aviation and missile programs. It is also one of Alabama's largest employers, with about 36,000 workers. More than a million customers lost power during the storm and 100,000 still don't have electricity. So the army post has been running on generators like this one.

(Soundbite of generator running)

KELLOGG: But, officials say they expect to have full power restored in the next few days. Colonel John Hamilton says that's good news, as any longer delay may have had an impact on the post's support of military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan and at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center which is supporting an upcoming NASA shuttle launch.

Colonel JOHN HAMILTON: We talk about normalcy and, you know, and one component of that is, you know, is Redstone Arsenal running normally, in terms of the way the work is being done. And we'll be able to get back to that very, very quickly. What will take a very long time to return to normalcy are peoples' lives.

KELLOGG: It's still impossible to get hard numbers, but the economic impact on this part of Alabama - and frankly the state as a whole is expected to be massive.

Huntsville is the state's second largest metropolitan area. According to its chamber of commerce, it accounted for roughly 40 percent of the new jobs created in the state in the past decade.

Rick Davis is the director of Cummings Research Park, which he says houses roughly 300 companies and boasts about 25,000 high-tech jobs. Most of the companies in the research park, including Boeing and Lockheed Martin, were shut down for the better part of a week.

Mr. RICK DAVIS (Director, Cummings Research Park): You've got companies that lost, you know, days of operation. You won't get those days back. So we'll have to see how that part of it plays out. But there's going to be a pretty severe impact.

KELLOGG: Huntsville wasn't the worst hit part of the state, but the damage here was still severe. Nevertheless, things are starting to return to normal. Huntsville straddles two counties, and blanket curfews in both were recently lifted in areas not hit by the tornado.

On Wednesday, Deputy Sheriff Jeremy Hughes patrolled several subdivisions in the Huntsville suburb of Harvest that were ripped apart by a tornado. Dozens of homes here are torn to shreds. Even old oak trees are turned upside down.

Sheriff JEREMY HUGHES: For people that live in non-affected areas, life is going back to its normal routine. Unfortunately for the people in the effected areas, who knows how long it'll be before life gets back to normal for them.

KELLOGG: That may be true in many parts of the state - and the South - that were hit by last week's storms.

Alex Kellogg, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

WERTHEIMER: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Alex Kellogg is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk who covers diversity-related issues and how these act as social, political and economic forces shaping our country. One focus for Kellogg in this newly created position is on the convergence of ethnicity, race, politics, media and government.