Deadly tornadoes stop life in Alabama towns

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RAINSVILLE, Ala. --- Lisa Chandler and her husband have been working nonstop since the deadly tornado outbreak, moving around the one generator powering their funeral home so they can get ready for services for six of the dead. Some are people they knew.

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A flag waves in the rubble outside a storefront destroyed by a tornado in Rainsville, Ala. Rainsville and the small towns north and south of it lost 32 people in this week's deadly tornadoes.   Chris Hawley/Associated Press
Chris Hawley/Associated Press
A flag waves in the rubble outside a storefront destroyed by a tornado in Rainsville, Ala. Rainsville and the small towns north and south of it lost 32 people in this week's deadly tornadoes.

"How am I handling it? I cry a little and I pray a lot," she said.

Small towns like Rainsville, in the northeast corner of the state, were once just dots on the map. Now they're wrenching scenes of destruction from storms that killed hundreds in seven states.

Rainsville, Hackleburg, Cordova and Phil Campbell in Alabama; Smithville in Mississippi. All have populations under 5,000. All lost at least 14 people. Rainsville and the small towns north and south lost 32.

"It's been heartbreaking," said Rhonda Jackson, who spent the past two days in Rainsville grilling hot dogs donated by a fast-food chain for anyone who needed food. "You have to have faith, and believe things are going to be all right, but you also have to know it's going to be tough for a while."

The sun still comes up and sets, but without power, those seem like the only benchmarks during the day. Stoplights are out, leaving drivers to fend for themselves at intersections.

Most restaurants are closed, with the few open giving away food that was going to spoil. A few stores, mostly Dollar Generals, are taking one customer at a time so people won't be tempted to steal in the darkened aisles.

Hackleburg, in northwest Alabama, doesn't even have a grocery store anymore. The police and fire departments are gone too, and officials are begging for body bags and flashlights because they're afraid residents with no electricity will burn down their homes with candles. Bodies are being kept in a refrigerated truck.

Looters ran through the nearby Wrangler clothing distribution center, and police made sure they locked drugs from a destroyed pharmacy in a bank vault, said Stanley Webb, the chief agent in the county's drug task force.

"If people steal, we are not playing around; they will go to jail," Webb said.

In Rainsville and elsewhere in DeKalb County, the main sounds are chain saws and generators. Emergency officials say power is out in the entire county, and the earliest estimate they have for when it will be restored is early next week.

One of the few places open was Rainsville Drugs. Pharmacist Wade Phillips brought a generator down from Chattanooga, Tenn., about 50 miles away.

They've been open from 8 a.m. to dark the past two days, selling essential items like batteries and diapers and filling prescriptions as fast as they can for people like Jennifer Blalock. She said if her son hadn't gotten his asthma medicine, she likely would have had to take him to the emergency room.

Blalock lives in Ider, another town about 15 miles away hard hit by the same tornado that blasted Rainsville.

She was thankful to be alive Wednesday, and spent Thursday checking on friends and family. By Friday, she was starting to get frustrated because no one seemed to know when power would return or the water service would be reliable.

"Everything is out," she said. "Everything thawed out in our fridge. I cooked it all yesterday and gave it away. But now I can't find an open grocery store to get more food."

At Rainsville Funeral Home, Chandler can't spend much time reflecting. She and her husband believe that funerals shouldn't be delayed just because it could be a week or more before power is restored.

Friends are pitching in, trying to find gas to keep the generator going and to make sure the hearse is ready to pick up another body or head to the cemetery in the next few days. They haven't had to stop to get a meal, as people keep bringing food by.

"People want that bit of closure now," Chandler said.


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