Rain, Chill Add to Misery of Tornado Victims

Rain added to the misery of those in several Southern states trying to salvage what they could from homes badly damaged by deadly twisters, leaving them shivering in unseasonable temperatures in the low 50s.

Becky Curtis sat in the bathroom, one of the only dry spots in her small red-brick apartment in gray, chilly, Tuscaloosa on Tuesday, sorting through old cassette tapes. In another room, rain dripped through holes in the ceiling onto her hardwood floors.

"We're trying to get all this stuff out of here as fast as we can to save some mementoes," she said. The rain "definitely does not help."

Though the sun was supposed to be out again Wednesday in Birmingham, temperatures the next couple days are forecast to be cooler there and in other areas of the South where many lost everything, including coats, sweat shirts and sweaters, leaving them with little to protect themselves from the chill.

The rain also didn't make the grim search for possibly more bodies under splintered homes and businesses any easier. The death toll in Alabama was reduced after officials started counting again because they were worried some of the victims might have been tallied twice.

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Officials believe 236 people died in Alabama, accounting for about two-thirds of the 328 people killed in all, making it the nation's deadliest twister outbreak since the Great Depression.

The financial and economic toll is far from being calculated.

Besides homes, hundreds of factories and other businesses were destroyed, and many others were left without electricity, throwing thousands out of work. It comes in an area where many people were struggling to make ends meet even before the twisters flattened neighborhoods in Alabama, Tennessee, Georgia and Mississippi. Unemployment in March ranged from 9.2 percent in Alabama to 10.2 percent in Mississippi.

The tornado that obliterated contractor Robert Rapley's house also swept away his livelihood, destroying his saws and his paint sprayer. He now faces the prospect of trying to recover with no way to earn a living.

"We lost everything," Rapley said as he climbed on the wreckage. "I can't even go to work."

Curtis Frederick, 28, couldn't find any work to provide for his three children aside from delivering newspapers. Then a twister wiped out his mobile home park in Tuscaloosa.

"There's a lot of people that need help," he said. "We're struggling already from the economy being so bad."

In Birmingham, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice toured an aid and donation center in a neighborhood of her home city that was heavily damaged. She grew up in the city and still has family there.

"You realize that with every home that's flattened, there are dreams and memories that have gone with that home. So this is a very human tragedy," said Rice, who served in former President George W. Bush's administration.

Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley said Tuesday that his state -- that he had presided over for just 100 days when the tornadoes hit -- is facing an unprecedented rebuilding effort, with more than half of the state's counties declared disaster areas.

"Ladies and gentlemen, we cannot -- and we will not -- let these people down. As leaders of this state, we will see that Alabama is rebuilt," he said.

One of the twisters destroyed a Wrangler jeans distribution center that employed 150 people in Hackleburg, an Alabama town of about 1,500. The town is in a county with an unemployment rate of nearly 13 percent.

"That one industry is the town," said Seth Hammett, director of the Alabama Development Office. "Until they get back up and going again, that town will not be the same."

VF Corp., Wrangler's parent company, said it is looking into setting up distribution operations in another location nearby to allow people to get back to work quickly, and employees will continue getting pay and benefits in the meantime. Eric Wiseman, chairman and CEO, said VF is also establishing a help center where workers can get food, water, gift cards and other critical supplies.

A Toyota engine plant in Huntsville with 800 employees lost power and was knocked out of commission when a twister damaged electrical transmission lines. Toyota said Tuesday it is not clear when electricity will be restored.

In Smithville, Miss., the storms heavily damaged three facilities owned by Townhouse Home Furnishings, which makes sofas and other furniture, said CFO Tony Watson. With 150 employees, the company was the town's biggest employer, Alderman Jimmy Dabbs said.

The company will relocate its Smithville operations to a publicly owned building in Mantachie, about a 30 minute drive from Smithville. About 25 Smithville employees are already back to work at other plants in nearby towns.

"We're trying to keep our people working so they can get a paycheck. It could be six months or a year before we reopen in Smithville and they have to keep up with orders or we'll lose out accounts," Watson said.

Georgia put insured property losses at $75 million or more, while Dan Batey of Farm Bureau Insurance of Tennessee said his company expects to pay out somewhere around $100 million in claims. Officials in Mississippi and Tennessee had no immediate estimates.

In the Pleasant Grove section of Birmingham, Katrina Mathus has not returned to work since a tornado blew out her windows, knocked out her electricity and exposed insulation she said is causing her asthmatic daughter to wheeze.

The 35-year-old single mother of three daughters said she is having trouble sleeping.

"Every time I close my eyes I see trees, people walking and crying, debris everywhere," Mathus said.

People thrown out of work by the storms will qualify for unemployment benefits as well as federal disaster aid.

It's tough to predict how long it will take for the stricken areas to recover, but the rebuilding projects could at least soften the economic blow.

"The rebuilding is huge," said Sam Addy, director of the Center for Business and Economic Research at the University of Alabama. "That brings in a lot of jobs and cash flow into the local area. For the larger economy, it's a loss."

In Birmingham, Rapley and his wife, Adrienne, survived the twister by taking cover in a storage room next to his garage. He carried her in -- she suffers from a brain injury -- and then they prayed: "The Lord is my shepherd." The deed to his property is gone, whisked away by the tornadoes. The house they shared for 20 years is destroyed.

For now, they are staying at a hotel, hoping to get federal aid soon.

"It's very expensive," Rapley said. "We're spending our last dime right now."