The death toll from Wednesday's storms reached 337 early Saturday across seven states, including at least 238 in Alabama, reports the Associated Press. Although there is no current consensus on the death toll as the number of victims continues to rise and hundreds remain unaccounted for, it is widely believed that this is so far the second deadliest tornado outbreak in U.S. history, after the March 18, 1925 storms that killed 747 people through Missouri, Illinois and Indiana.
One of the reasons the storms have been so deadly is that even emergency services have been hit by the storms, hobbling their infrastructure. The Associated Press reports how Tuscaloosa's emergency management center was destroyed, forcing officials to use space in the University of Alabama's Bryant-Denny Stadium, before moving operations to the Alabama Fire College. Also wiped out was a Salvation Army building, costing the city much-needed shelter space. In nearby Alberta City, a fire station was destroyed, so firefighters began rescue operations without a truck.
The lack of organization has led to looting in Tuscaloosa and other cities. Residents reported the theft of jewelry and the few other possessions they had left. People have looted a demolished Wrangler jeans distribution center, and authorities locked up drugs from a destroyed pharmacy in a bank. Desperate Tuscaloosa police have responded by imposing a curfew and getting help from National Guard troops to try to stop the looting.
However, in the aftermath of the storms emerge dozens of harrowing, and often miraculous, stories of survival.
In Tuscaloosa, Alabama, an eight-year-old boy was sucked from his bed when a tornado broke through his house, and unbelievably, he survived. NPR interviewed his father Reginald Eppes while the boy was recovering in a hospital with fractured ribs and a deflated lung. "And right when I said get up and I put my hands on him, the walls went, and he went. He just - he left," said Eppes. "The tornado took him right then...It was like somebody just had a slingshot on him, a rope or a rubber band and had traction on that rubber band and pulled him away." Nurses told Eppes that the boy just "floated back down to the ground," where he found his way back to the remains of his house by the flashlights his parents were using to find their way through the rubble.
The Los Angeles Times reports on the story of Foster Witherspoon, again in Tuscaloosa, who watched in horror with her granddaughter as as a red truck flew through the air. They sat huddled in her closet, with Foster pulling the closet door shut against the strength of the storm with such determination that she believes she dislocated her finger. "It sounded, she said, like eight engines." Within seconds, the storm was over, and her and her granddaughter were buried in a pile of brick and wood, calling for help.