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Impact of record storms still being measured

By the CNN Wire Staff
  • The Weather Service says at least 178 tornadoes were spawned by the April storms
  • When field surveys are completed, the number could be closer to 305, the NWS says
  • Alabama was hard-hit by tornadoes; at least 249 people were killed there, officials said

(CNN) -- A week after a record number of tornadoes swarmed through much of the Midwest and the South, killing hundreds of people and devastating villages and towns, residents and officials in the region were still trying to measure its impact.

"It will take us several weeks to get accurate numbers on property losses," said Yasamine R. August, a spokeswoman for Alabama Emergency Management. "Entire communities are gone."

Officials say 178 tornadoes have been confirmed as part of the weather that raked the region April 27-28, making it the largest recorded tornado outbreak in U.S. history. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration estimates that the outbreak spawned a total of 305 tornadoes.

The confirmed tornadoes already blew away the previous record of 148 tornadoes in the April 3-4, 1974, outbreak, the National Weather Service said. And if the NOAA estimate is correct, the new record would be more than double the previous record.

Last week's twisters caused 327 deaths, making it the third-deadliest tornado outbreak in U.S. history, behind outbreaks in 1925 and 1932, with 747 deaths and 332 deaths respectively.

Among the hardest-hit states was Alabama, where officials said at least 249 people were killed and 39 of the state's 67 counties were designated for disaster assistance. More than 3 million chickens were killed.

"Our number priority is debris removal," said Alabama Emergency Management Director Art Faulkner. "That is the first step (in an) absolutely monumental task."

He said 98,000 customers remained without electricity, more than half of them Tennessee Valley Authority customers in the northern part of the state, where TVA lost two major power transmission lines.

But, he added, "We are remarkably well." He noted that supplies were coming so fast that some counties were turning them away.

The requests from local to state authorities in Alabama were mostly predictable -- trucks of water, ready-to-eat meals, tarps, ice, baby food. But some were a bit rarefied, including a request for 1,000 rounds of ammunition for National Guard troops in Cullman County (canceled); 1,000 5-gallon containers of virgin olive oil by Walker County to be used by locals and volunteer agencies (completed); and 10,000 gallons of milk to the Cordoba Veterans of Foreign Wars in support of disaster relief (denied).

After the storms had picked up, shaken and slapped back down her neighborhood of Alberta City in eastern Tuscaloosa, Sarah Chovnick walked through it and took pictures of the wreckage. "The center, the heart of Tuscaloosa, had been struck down by Mother Nature and had been left no ground to stand on," said the University of Alabama student who works at a news station. "I've never been as scared as I was when I walked out into the center of Tuscaloosa and saw it was gone."

In Tennessee, 36 fatalities were reported, the state emergency management agency said.

In Shelbyville, the Times-Gazette was trying to help residents pick up the pieces by serving as a collection point for photographs found in Bedford County. The newspaper reported collecting nearly 100.

Late Wednesday, the White House announced that President Barack Obama had signed emergency declarations for affected counties in Tennessee and Mississippi. The declarations authorize the Federal Emergency Management Agency to coordinate disaster relief efforts.

As of noon Wednesday, more than $10 million had been authorized or disbursed to survivors across the affected states, with the bulk of them in Alabama, said FEMA Administrator William Craig Fugate.

"We expect those numbers to continue to go up as people register," he said. But, he added, "I want to be very clear about FEMA assistance -- we're not designed to make you whole."

The tornadoes were equal-opportunity storms, he said. "It got the mobile homes, it got the ranch-style, middle-class house, it got the apartment complex, it got the affluent folks. It didn't matter. It's where the tornado went."

But he said the toll of death and destruction would have been higher had it not been for good planning, accurate weather predictions and timely communications.

"I heard this many times: The local TV, the local radio stations saved lives by getting the word out," he said. "Many people had enough time to leave the area."

In Mississippi, 36 storm-related deaths and 163 injuries were reported, the state's emergency management agency said in a news release. Spokesman Greg Flynn said more than 1,000 homes were destroyed or heavily damaged.

Mississippi emergency management spokesman Brett Carr said the sewage system in the northeastern city of Smithville, population 900, was being operated with backup generators and that electricity was restored to much of the city on Tuesday.

The turnout from volunteers has been overwhelming, he said, with 1,800 people -- some from as far away as Chicago -- volunteering their services during the first few days.

In northwest Georgia, emergency management spokeswoman Crystal Paulk-Buchanan said the city of Trenton was still under a boil-water order and 155 homes in the town of 5,000 residents were without power. Dade County schools were shut due to the lack of water.

At least four apartment complexes, comprising nearly all of the town's rental housing, were no longer habitable, she said.

Throughout the state, 15 people died and 115 were injured, she said. "It just makes you sick to the heart," she said. At least 500 homes were destroyed and 800 others were left with "major problems," she added.

CNN Meteorologist Sean Morris and Dave Alsup contributed to this story