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Tornado-ravaged communities tally their losses

On a day when President Obama toured tornado-ravaged Tuscaloosa and declared that he'd never seen devastation like it, residents of DeKalb County — a lesser-known region of corn and chicken farms about 150 miles northeast — were quietly counting the cost of their own tragedy.

There were 33 dead and more than 200 hurt in the county so far, making DeKalb one of the hardest-hit regions in the multi-state tornado siege that has killed at least 333 people and injured more than 2,000 this week, the deadliest twister outbreak since 1925.

Across DeKalb on Friday, two days after hundreds of homes were reduced to splinters by a twister that plowed a 25-mile path through the county, teenagers cut felled trees with chainsaws and mothers raked up debris. With rain expected early next week, people scrambled to fix roofs.

In Rainsville, one of the county hubs, the civic center was gutted, as was the nearby Huddle House, a favorite social spot. Neighborhoods had no electricity, running water was scarce, and cows were roaming loose.

Jeff Mann, a pastor, spent the day consoling rescue workers who had witnessed too much death. One deputy he counseled had helped recover 28 bodies. "Today, all these guys look like they're doing fine, but tomorrow you'll start to see them with glassy eyes from all that they've seen," Mann said.

Kandi Howard, 49, a volunteer at Destiny Church International, drove through town handing out cases of water and offering rides. It was better than the helpless feeling of sitting around. "Everybody's heard of Tuscaloosa, but people will wonder, 'Where the heck is Rainsville?' " she said.

When the twister bore down on 39-year-old Sonya Mahon's home on Lingerfelt Road on Wednesday, she ran into the bedroom closet with her son and 9-month-old granddaughter. Suddenly four teenage boys she did not know rushed into the closet with them. They had been driving down the road and, desperate to escape the twister, picked her sturdy-looking brick house as a shelter.

Afterward, her home was still standing, though wooden houses on either side were destroyed. Families had managed to survive in them by hiding under mattresses and in a bathroom. Down the street, two women died.

"It feels terrible," said Wes Mahon, 46, Sonya's husband, surveying the damage. "It feels like you've got to start all over again."

Some bodies had to be buried right away because they couldn't be embalmed and the freezers weren't big enough to fit them all, said Lt. George Thorpe, an Alabama state trooper.

This northeastern Alabama county is proud of its self-sufficiency, and perhaps nothing better illustrated that quality than the emergency shelters that stood mostly empty Friday. People who had lost their homes had found shelter with family and friends.

"This county has learned over the years to take care of itself," said Mike Leath, director of the county's emergency medical agency. "They're very tightknit and very close."

On Friday morning, Obama and his family flew to Tuscaloosa, then traveled by motorcade through the city, where trees were toppled, neighborhoods flattened.

"I've never seen devastation like this," Obama said.

The president has promised full federal cooperation in disaster relief efforts. "We're going to make sure you're not forgotten," he told residents. The Federal Emergency Management Agency has sent personnel to Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky and Tennessee.

In a radio interview, Tuscaloosa Mayor Walt Maddox said he had originally told federal emergency officials that his city was a disaster. But now, he said, "I would classify it as a nightmare."

Maddox estimated during an interview with "PBS NewsHour" that about 6,000 homes "were directly in the path of the tornado" and that an additional 15,000 homes may have been damaged.

"On the housing issue, if we can't get some quick solutions to that, we're going to be facing a humanitarian crisis in the weeks to come," he told PBS.

The death toll in Tuscaloosa was at least 45, with 228 deaths reported in the state. The University of Alabama confirmed that three students had died. By the latest count, there were 34 deaths in Tennessee, 34 in Mississippi, 15 in Georgia, 14 in Arkansas, five in Virginia, two in Louisiana and one in Kentucky.

On Friday, minutes after Obama toured Tuscaloosa's ravaged Alberta neighborhood, a group of volunteers waved down rescue workers and breathlessly told them that they had discovered survivors in an apartment building nearby.

Paramedics raced to the scene and climbed over debris to reach the building, where just one of the four apartments was intact. Inside they found a family: two parents and a teenage girl with cerebral palsy who relies on crutches. Her mother didn't think she could get down the stairs.

The mother, Millie, who would not give her last name, said they stayed in the house because they didn't know where else to go. They were helped out of the apartment and onto the street where Obama's motorcade had passed just minutes earlier.

Many in Tuscaloosa said they thought the town would never be the same.

Erica Wallace, 31, is worried about where people will live. "Half the town is gone," the Tuscaloosa native said. "We may just have to move on."

Standing near the ravaged Alberta Baptist Church, Wallace had a shopping cart full of clothes and whatever else she could salvage from her home, which she called "a total loss."

"My whole community is gone, all the way down to the elementary school," Wallace said. "Everything that you have ever had and worked for, gone." After the storm, she returned to her neighborhood to find the street signs uprooted, the landmarks missing. "I'm like, 'What street am I on? Where's my house? Where my friends at?' " she said.

With so many businesses destroyed — the Hobby Lobby, the Salvation Army, gas stations, fire stations, schools — she wondered where people would work.

She and others in the neighborhood said they were insulted by the 8 p.m. curfew city leaders had imposed in hopes of minimizing looting. "At a time like this we shouldn't be separated," Wallace said. "We should all be coming together."

A few breaths later, Tuscaloosa Fire Department Battalion Chief David Hallman walked up. "I just want to say that if you need help, ask for it," Hallman said. He said he was glad that she and her neighbors were safe.

"Stuff is stuff," he said. "Y'all is what's important."

In Rosedale Court, a housing project for low-income residents, cadaver dogs sniffed the rubble. One dog, Ryka, gingerly walked over mangled metal, piles of bricks and splintered wood. She passed an overturned baby carriage, a set of bunk beds and a Valentine's Day basket that still held two milk chocolate roses.

At a pile of debris near the back of one apartment, Ryka stopped and barked sharply, eight times.

A crew of seven search-and-rescue workers descended with steel pickaxes. They wrenched away window frames, pipes and pieces of roofing to uncover what was underneath. But no bodies were seen.

"I don't smell death yet," said Tuscaloosa Fire Capt. Quentin Brown, who was overseeing the recovery mission. "And I hope I don't."

esmeralda.bermudez@latimes.com

kate.linthicum@latimes.com

christopher.goffard@latimes.com

Bermudez reported from Rainsville. Linthicum from Tuscaloosa and Goffard from Los Angeles. Times staff writers Stephen Ceasar and Michael Muskal in Los Angeles and Richard Simon in Washington contributed to this report.

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