Day of prayer as US south mourns tornado victims

Churches from Mississippi to Virginia flung open their doors to the faithful.

Last Updated: May 01, 2011, 23:59 PM IST

Tuscaloosa: Grieving storm survivors turned to prayer and the good grace of volunteers on Sunday across the US south as shattered communities looked to rebuild after the second-worst tornado disaster on record.

Churches from Mississippi to Virginia flung open their doors to the faithful, some in the very houses of worship ruined by powerful tornadoes that claimed nearly 350 lives on Wednesday.

"This is the Bible Belt. Church goes on regardless," Tennessee Emergency Management Agency spokesman Jeremy Heidt said.

In Smithville, Mississippi -- population 900 -- the Church of Christ has been converted into a food, clothing and medicine distribution centre so the congregation were gathering outside for a short open-air service.

"We`re just going to remember the dead and buried by taking the Lord`s supper, and give of our means. People come together when the need arises," church elder Danny Stephenson, 62, said.

"Of our six churches, four of them is gone," he said. Sixteen of 18 Smithville businesses, were demolished by the killer twisters. "There ain`t nothing left. Just wiped clean, like you took a bulldozer to it all."

The White House said members of President Barack Obama`s cabinet where due in Smithville and Birmingham, Alabama later Sunday to assess the situation, including Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano.

Like communities across the battered region, neighbours helped neighbours in Smithville, and volunteers conducted search and rescue, cooked meals for victims, and helped haul debris.

"The whole town has come together," Stephenson said. "And I`ve talked to one family, they`re going to rebuild right where they`re at."

The American Red Cross has opened 16 shelters across hardest-hit Alabama, taking in about 900 of the newly homeless, the organisation announced.

Obama reiterated his pledge to help the region recover from the "heartbreaking" despair and devastation.

"It`s going to be a long road back and so we need to keep those Americans in our thoughts and in our prayers," Obama said late Saturday. "We also need to stand with them in the hard months and perhaps years to come."

The death toll in Alabama stood at 250 on Sunday, with eight others missing and another 1,730 people injured.

Mississippi has confirmed 35 deaths, and its emergency management agency touched on the scope of the disaster in reporting 993 homes destroyed and another 2,527 damaged in the state.

There were also 34 deaths in Tennessee, 15 in Georgia, eight in Arkansas and five in Virginia.

The overall death toll of 347 is exceeded only by a tornado outbreak in March 1925 that left 747 people dead.

Search and rescue teams were moving into smaller communities that didn`t get immediate attention after the storms, and they are coming upon more destruction, said Yasamie August, an Alabama emergency management spokeswoman.

"We are still finding complete subdivisions and homes completely levelled. It is very devastating to see," she said.

For the living, still shocked by scenes of utter devastation in once-thriving cities like Tuscaloosa, the ordeal of rebuilding their shattered lives was just beginning.

Complicating efforts, many firehouses and emergency facilities were severely damaged in the storms, and more than 550,000 customers remain in the dark Sunday in Alabama alone, electricity companies said.

Tuscaloosa`s Salvation Army building was destroyed, but the faith-based humanitarian group has managed to set up 40 mobile feeding units, providing 20,000 warm meals per day in Alabama and Mississippi.

"Sometimes a cup of water or coffee or a hot meal reminds people that someone cares for them and loves them and is there to help meet their needs," the Salvation Army`s Mark Jones said by telephone from Mississippi.

Bureau Report