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Tuscaloosa mayor: Eyes back on tornado catastrophe

By Jason Hanna, CNN
  • Mayor understands bin Laden attention, but seeks sustained focus on tornado disaster
  • City, region need long-term help, Tuscaloosa Mayor Walter Maddox says
  • U.S. tornadoes in several states killed at least 327
  • Crews still looking for missing people week after storms

(CNN) -- The tornadoes weren't forgotten. The families of the hundreds who were killed in last week's record outbreak that flattened towns in the South, and the tens of thousands whose homes or businesses were damaged, and the many donors and volunteers who rushed to their aid from around the world didn't forget about the destruction, even after the United States announced it had killed Osama bin Laden.

But the terrorist mastermind's death has dominated national headlines since Sunday night, pushing tornado disaster reports, while still being made, down the pecking order. The mayor of Tuscaloosa -- the University of Alabama city where at least 41 died and 25 still are missing -- noticed.

Mayor Walter Maddox said this week that "with Tuscaloosa no longer being in the national media, I believe it can present a problem in terms of reminding the nation that what we face down here is a catastrophe," according to The Crimson White.

He understands why bin Laden caught the headlines, but the South's devastated communities will need sustained attention from the public and the federal government, he told CNN in a phone interview Thursday.

"Our state was hit with a Katrina-like event with less than 10 to 15 minutes' notice, and it's going to take years for our state and this city to recover," Maddox said. "What is important ... is (maintaining) the support from the federal government, and a lot of that will be borne out of the attention in this nation."

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  • Alabama
  • Osama bin Laden
  • Tornadoes
  • Tuscaloosa

Weather officials said more than 175 confirmed tornadoes hit the South and the Midwest April 27-28, and the total, once all is examined, could surpass 300. The twisters caused at least 327 deaths, at least 249 of which were in Alabama, officials said.

See how the South is recovering from the storm and share your story

In Tuscaloosa, a massive tornado cut a 5.9-mile path of destruction, damaging or destroying more than 5,700 structures, directly affecting an estimated 13,700 people who lived and worked there, mayoral spokeswoman Heather McCollum said.

Search teams still are searching the wreckage for victims, and the city is reviewing plans for temporary housing. At the university, where spring finals were canceled and May graduation has been postponed to August, students are using fraternity/sorority houses as collection points for food and supplies, and they've delivered thousands of hot meals to the community, school employee Lucy Sikes said.

Sikes took refuge in a bathtub with her husband and two small children while the April 27 storm rendered her home uninhabitable. Her family is staying in a friend's garden home while trying to decide what to do next.

"I know there's been a lot of news lately, but please keep (Tuscaloosa) in your thoughts and prayers," Sikes told CNN's Brooke Baldwin on Thursday.

Volunteers, passers-by and storm victims have been documenting the region's devastation on CNN's iReport. While passing through the tornado-hit small town of Glade Spring, Virginia, Jeremy Michael this week took photos of damaged homes and metal that still was wrapped around trees.

"With all of the talk about the devastating tornadoes in the South, I feel that many smaller towns that were impacted were forgotten to a degree," Michael, a West Virginia resident and a meteorology major at the University of North Carolina at Asheville, told iReport.

Melody McClure, of Harvest, Alabama, was one of several volunteers who departed from Huntsville to clean up sites around the area. She took pictures of homes missing entire floors at her volunteer site in Madison County, Alabama.

'Volunteers worked very hard all day piling up debris until we were picked up again by buses," she told iReport. "Several houses had completely lost their roofs, along with one or more walls. One or two houses were basically piles of rubble on their foundations. I'm not familiar with this neighborhood, but it looked to be fairly new, and consisted of good-sized brick homes."

Casey Nation, of McCalla, Alabama, told iReport the homes of several friends in nearby Pleasant Grove either were leveled or had extensive damage.

"It was so hard seeing families with no home or (who) lost a loved one. I could not and still cannot quit thinking about the damage," said Nation, who took pictures of the damage in Pleasant Grove last week.

Tuscaloosa spokeswoman McCollum said the city is "receiving tremendous amounts of support and aid" from the federal government, donors and volunteers.

"It's hard to say we have everything we need, but we have everything we need to get started," she said.

Mayor Maddox said he's very impressed with the resources coming into the state so far. He said his city has the opportunity to recover, but with the state already hurting from the recent recession, the city and region need the country to keep paying attention.

"From the very beginning, I've said we will not let the tornadoes define us. We'll let our determination to overcome ... be what Americans remember us by," he said.

CNN's Nicole Saidi, Christina Zdanowicz and Mallory Simon contributed to this report.