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Experts Question Why Death Toll In Alabama Tornadoes Was So High


People in Alabama will likely be looking to the federal government for help in coming months. Twenty-three people were killed in a tornado in that state on Sunday. At least three of the victims were young children. The tornado was a mile wide at points. Winds topped 170 miles per hour. It stayed on the ground for at least 40 miles in Alabama and Georgia. The area that was hardest hit was in Lee County, Ala. NPR's Russell Lewis reports.

RUSSELL LEWIS, BYLINE: As the sun went down last night, the shock still had not fully set in for Jenifer Vernon (ph). She was standing in what was left of her neighborhood in Beauregard, Ala. Her house - gone.

JENIFER VERNON: We've got a few things out. But you know, for the most part, it's all either damaged or wet or, you know, not really salvageable. So...

LEWIS: Vernon was lucky. She wasn't home when the tornado hit, and she believes that's why she's still alive.


LEWIS: The only sounds are from chainsaws as friends and strangers cut through the debris. It's a bleak scene - roofs ripped clean off, power poles cracked in half, cars tossed about like children's toys. And shards of yellow insulation hang from shattered pines like tinsel on a Christmas tree. It's this way for as far as the eye can see.


LEWIS: Crews are getting a better look at all the devastation with these - tiny drones about the size of a soccer ball and equipped with high-powered video cameras.

RICARDO CASTELLANOS: The view on it is impeccable.

LEWIS: Ricardo Castellanos (ph) and his team have flown these drones almost nonstop since the tornado hit. They coordinate with emergency managers to survey damage in real time from hundreds of feet above. They pinpoint where trees have blocked roads and power lines are down. But Castellanos says some of the most important initial work happened overnight using thermal imaging to look for people who were trapped.

CASTELLANOS: Search is always harder at night - usually suspended, you know, a lot of times. So being that we have thermal now, we can keep the operation going from day to night, you know, and keep it going, keep it going.

LEWIS: In Alabama, the tornado stayed on the ground for 25 miles. But it wasn't a surprise to meteorologists. They had warned about the possibility of severe weather in this area a day in advance. And on the morning of the storm, they began to issue more dire forecasts. Chris Darden is a meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Birmingham. He was surveying the damage and says any loss of life is regrettable. But with a tornado this powerful, it was almost inevitable.

CHRIS DARDEN: You know, a 170 mph centrifuge throwing bricks, debris, two-by-eights - they're all spears. You know, they're all killing machines.

LEWIS: Researchers have long studied how people react when bad weather is predicted. Phil Chaney teaches geography at Auburn University and co-authored papers on tornado readiness and the vulnerability of mobile homes during severe weather. He says many people have a tornado plan, but that's not good enough.

PHIL CHANEY: They need to actually go through the steps to see how long it takes so that they understand how much time is going to be required to get to their safe place so that they have in their mind when they get the warnings and they know what they're going to do at that point.

LEWIS: In the Deep South, that's an important reminder. The worst of the tornado season peaks next month.

Russell Lewis, NPR News, Beauregard, Ala. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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