The cleanup and the tally from last week’s devastating tornadoes across the South continued over the weekend as federal and state agencies moved quickly to help the thousands of people left homeless.
Aware that this was the worst natural disaster since Hurricane Katrina in 2005 – and of the criticism former President Bush felt for an inept federal response and what seemed to be personal disinterest – President Obama dispatched top administration officials following his visit to the area Friday.
Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano, Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Administrator Craig Fugate, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, and Small Business Administration Administrator Karen Mills were all due to visit devastated areas in Alabama and Mississippi on Sunday, according to FEMA.
The latest death toll, according to the Associated Press, is at least 342 across seven states, including 250 in Alabama. The numbers of those killed in other states were reported to be 35 in Mississippi, 34 in Tennessee, 15 in Georgia, five in Virginia, two in Louisiana, and one in Kentucky.
Tuscaloosa Mayor Walt Maddox said late Saturday that 434 people were unaccounted for, down from 570 hours earlier.
“My sense is that we will have more fatalities,” Mayor Maddox told the AP.
The number of injured in Alabama was 2,219, state emergency management officials reported, and 56,000 homes and businesses in the state remained without electrical power Sunday morning. Some 2,000 Alabama National Guard personnel are patrolling neighborhoods, helping residents and preventing looting.
There were 659 people in shelters across Alabama, Yasamie August of the Alabama Emergency Management Agency told Reuters.
Meanwhile, those states most impacted are reporting thousands of homes and other buildings destroyed or damaged: 5,700 in the Tuscaloosa area alone, 2,600 in Mississippi, and 500 in Virginia. In all, some 10,000 buildings may have been destroyed, according to initial estimates.
Insured losses from the recent outbreak of tornadoes are expected to be in the range of $2 billion to $5 billion, reports EQECAT, Inc., a catastrophe risk modeling firm in Oakland, Calif.
The Birmingham News reports that FEMA has opened six disaster recovery centers in four Alabama counties to help with federal disaster assistance. This can include grants for rental assistance and home repairs, low-interest loans from the Small Business Administration to cover uninsured property losses, and other programs to help recover from the effects of the disaster.
Obama, who visited Alabama on Friday, has signed disaster declarations for Alabama, Mississippi, and Georgia.
On Sunday, church-goers in stricken areas held services as best they could.
Members of the badly-damaged Alberta Baptist Church in Tuscaloosa formed a circle in the parking lot of their destroyed church. There, they held a brief service before going out to help their neighbors.
For individuals across the country wishing to help tornado victims, FEMA directs people to the National Donations Management Network.