A tornado killed 23 people in this Alabama town. Its residents say it could have been worse
Updated 11:03 AM ET, Fri March 8, 2019
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Beauregard, Alabama (CNN)Trying to figure out what happened over the phone was torture.
A murderous EF-4 tornado had leveled her parents' neighborhood in this rural swath of southeast Alabama. Krystal Stenson-Garrett -- two hours north at her kitchen table in Birmingham -- was shaking.
She was on the phone with her cousin, Montasha Preston, who was in Beauregard, frantically trying to reach their childhood homes, three doors down from each other.
Preston couldn't reach the neighborhood by car, so she got out and ran a half mile, hopping over downed trees and ducking under power lines.
Stenson-Garrett, 35, felt helpless. She pressed for answers, but Preston didn't have any yet. She would call back when she had more information.
Then the calls started coming.
The first brought good news. Stenson-Garrett's nephews, Eric, 17, and Dillian, 14, had been found. The storm had yanked them from her parents' mobile home and tossed them across the street. They were hurt -- Eric badly -- but they were alive.
Preston called back. They had found Stenson-Garrett's dad.
"Thank God," she said.
"No, not thank God, Krystal," Preston replied. "He didn't make it."
In the next call, Stenson-Garrett learned the twister had also taken her mother and only brother. In the final call, she was told her uncle was dead, too.
Of the 23 people killed in the deadliest US tornado in almost six years, four were her kin.
Rescue worker: 'It's all been put in a blender and blown for miles'
Days after the tornado, residents in this neighborhood along Lee Road 39 are struggling to process the devastation around them. There are areas a mile wide where no structure survived.
The tornado smashed homes into each other, combining their contents into mammoth piles of wreckage. Brick homes are missing their roofs. Steel beams are twisted like shoelaces. Foundations sit empty like basketball courts. Wrecked cars and riding mowers rest atop mounds of rubble. Tall trees have been reduced to 6-foot mangled stumps.
"You know the area, and you get to a point where you don't know the area anymore," said Mike Pooler, a drone systems instructor who has been working with a makeshift search-and-rescue team. "The houses on the hill are now in a pile."
The horizon, long obscured by dense woods, is visible in the distance.
The flotsam from the storm provides a window into the lives it overturned. Baby shoes. Broken china. Shrink-wrapped chickens. Liquor bottles. Shotgun shells. Unopened bills. A coloring book. American flag cornhole bags. Medicine bottles. Lots and lots of photos.
"It's all been put in a blender and it's just been blown for miles all over creation," said Adam Littleton, 40, a bus driver also helping the search team.
Recovery, where it's possible, will take months or longer. The buzz of chainsaws and scent of pine sap are everywhere, but even in this wasteland there's a palpable belief among residents that this town can bounce back, especially the way the community has come together.
Many here will tell you the tornado is God testing them, and He would never put more on them than they can handle.