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Gore says Alabama tornado damage 'unprecedented'

Witt and Gore
Witt, left, and Gore visit tornado-damaged areas  
April 10, 1998
Web posted at: 2:35 p.m. EDT (1835 GMT)

JEFFERSON COUNTY, Alabama (CNN) -- "The devastation we saw on this tour exceeds that associated with any tornado I have seen," said Vice President Al Gore as he completed a tour of tornado-devastated areas of Alabama on Friday.

"This was the most powerful tornado ever known in this part of the country. The damage was virtually unprecedented, and therefore our response must be unprecedented." (icon 281K/23 sec. AIFF or WAV sound)

Across Jefferson County on Friday, residents sifted through their shattered homes and prepared to bury their dead as rescue officials looked for more victims of one of the most powerful tornadoes ever to hit Alabama.

Gore toured the area with a group of local officials, congressmen and Clinton administration officials, including FEMA Director James Lee Witt.

The storms killed at least 43 people in Alabama, Georgia and Mississippi, at least 30 of them in Alabama alone. Nearly 200 people were injured and 2,000 homes and businesses were destroyed or damaged.

Al Gore and other representatives assess the damage in Alabama
icon 8 mininutes 59 seconds VXtreme video

Detailed maps:
  • Alabama
  • Georgia
  • Mississippi
  • Possible tornado touchdowns
  • Alabama Emergency Management Director Lee Helms said "several more people" were still missing. Rescue teams moved out at daybreak in an attempt to find them amid a swath of rubble a mile wide and 20 miles long left behind by the twister.

    Tornado rated among most destructive

    Weather service officials say the twister registered as a F-5 on the Fujita scale of measuring tornadoes, on which F-0 is the least intense and F-5 the most destructive.

    An F-5 tornado is rare and carries winds in excess of 260 mph.

    Clean up
    Cleanup begins for residents in west Birmingham  

    Of the 43 killed, 32 were in Alabama, 10 in Georgia and one in Mississippi. Tornado warnings gave people at least 15 minutes advance notice of the pending twisters, though the storms in Georgia hit in the early hours of Thursday morning when many people were asleep.

    President Clinton issued federal disaster declarations for seven Georgia counties, including the four largest counties in metro Atlanta and four counties in Alabama

    Gore's wife Tipper, who also toured the area, said, "Crises like these remind us of what it really means to be human." Recalling the upcoming Easter weekend, she said, "A lot of people are going to be in such pain. But they can remember 'Love thy neighbor as thyself,' and reach out to others. ... We stand to help." (icon 204K/16 sec. AIFF or WAV sound)

    Officials ask neighbors to help neighbors

    Witt, who noted that he and Gore have visited a number of disaster scenes over the last few years, said he saw neighbors helping neighbors recover from the storm, "a partnership that can make the difference" in repairing lives.

    Leveled home
    The cinderblock foundation is all that remains of this home in Edgewater, Alabama. Several family members perished in the storm.  

    "Now is the time for us to stand together in partnership to get this rebuilt and cleaned up," Witt said, promising that the federal government would be "the best neighbor you ever had" during the recovery. (icon 255K/20 sec. AIFF or WAV sound)

    Ten people died in Georgia, where deaths and damage occurred in widely scattered areas that included the northern suburbs of Atlanta and near Savannah in the southeastern part of the state, more than 200 miles away.

    Before wreaking havoc in Alabama and Georgia, the same storm system hit northeastern Mississippi, killing a 16-year-old Pontotoc County boy. Authorities said Richard Sills was killed when a hot water heater landed on his head.

    Stories of survival

    Damaged house
    A damaged house in Dunwoody, Georgia  

    Amazing stories of survival continued to surface late in the week. Congregants attending services at a nondenominational church near Birmingham survived the storm with only minor cuts after huddling in an interior hallway as the tornado passed by; while the building was destroyed, the walls protecting them were more or less intact.

    And Jesse and Walter Martin will never be able to look at their neighborhood the same again. Wailing sirens warned them of a tornado, which came right to their front door. While Walter wanted to take refuge in their home's hallway, his wife insisted that they sit in the bathtub instead -- a decision that may have saved her family's life.

    Their hallway, like most of their house, is now filled with rubble, overturned furniture and mementoes strewn about at random. But as they began cleaning up, sorting through keepsakes and photographs, they found a picture of their family and realized how much they still have left.


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