TUSCALOOSA, Ala. (BP)–In the devastating wake of the Dec. 16 killer tornado, residents continued to dig out from under crushed homes, and officials began the equally mountainous task of assessing the damage.
Saturday’s tornado packed winds of nearly 200 mph at times, injured about 75 and killed 12 people here, making it the single most deadly tornado in the U.S. this year.
Included in the death toll were at least two children, and six other children remain at area hospitals.
U.S. Sen. Richard Shelby, a Tuscaloosa County resident, was expected to accompany a team from the Federal Emergency Management Agency today to tour the damage. That move could free up millions of dollars in federal grants and loans.
Gov. Don Siegelman, who met with residents on Dec. 17 in the Taylorville area, declared a state of emergency in Tuscaloosa County. Accompanied by Sheriff Ted Sexton and emergency personnel, Siegelman talked to FEMA director James Lee Witt on a cellular telephone from the Bear Creek Road Trailer Park.
“We certainly need your help,” Siegelman told Witt over the phone while holding a toy fire truck he scooped up from the mud. “It’s pretty devastating.”
Witt, along with U.S. Rep. Spencer Bachus, R-Ala., could be visiting Tuscaloosa County early this week. The American Red Cross conducting ground and aerial assessments in Tuscaloosa County estimated the following damage:
— 138 structures sustained minor damage.
— 62 structures sustained major damage.
— 65 structures were destroyed.
The damage tally could be well into the millions based on preliminary reports, officials said.
In areas such as the sprawling Bear Creek Trailer Park south of Tuscaloosa where at least five people died, residents like Andrew Hayden were trying to save pieces of their lives.
“Look how the county has come together,” said Hayden who lost his four-bedroom house on Bear Creek Road. “I don’t know the people here helping out.”
Besides surviving, Hayden said the other miracle that came out of the category F4 tornado was being reunited with his cat, Logan.
“We were here last night until 2 a.m. because we wanted our cat,” Hayden said.
While crews began the laborious task of cleaning up the massive amount of debris from the tornado that touched down for about 18 miles in the county, some residents were interested in personal keepsakes such as photos.
For families who had possessions scattered over a wide area, Sunday was a day for choosing what they would throw away and what they would salvage.
Scarred and with one eye nearly shut from bruises, Angel Turner returned to her home at Bear Creek Road Trailer Park to find several angel figurines she collects.
“I got my family and that’s all that really matters,” Turner said walking away from pieces of wood and torn furniture that once was her home.
Turner and her husband Randall salvaged a wedding dress from the destruction hoping to return it to its rightful owner one day.
Sunday, Dec. 17, was an emotional day for Eric Heinrich and his neighbors near the intersection of Old Marion Road and Bear Creek Road. Heinrich woke up Sunday to find rescuers had discovered the body of 15-month old neighbor Wesley Crowder who was buried underneath debris.
The Crowder family lost two members, Wesley and his father James D. Crowder. Wesley’s two sisters and mother remained hospitalized in Birmingham.
“A lot of people would say why God would do this,” Heinrich said sifting through piles of limbs. “It’s not an act of God; he only allows it to happen.”
The search for the youngest Crowder child was called off Saturday night after scores of volunteers searched for hours against freezing temperatures and darkening conditions. The discovery of his body Sunday morning shocked rescuers and brought some to tears, said Don Hartley, spokesman for the Tuscaloosa County Emergency management Agency.
“With the holiday period, it broke their hearts,” Hartley said. “Some of the searchers immediately thought of their children.”
(Editor’s Note: This story first appeared in The Tuscaloosa News and is used here by permission.)