BIRMINGHAM, Alabama (Reuters) - Chad Hall spotted a small bag as he led power crews onto rural coal mining property a day after storms that killed more than 200 people in Alabama last week.
“In the middle of nowhere, he found this little cosmetic bag, something like a teenager would carry,” said Hall’s wife, Tonya, who looked inside and discovered an iPod, jewelry and report cards belonging to a girl who lived 30 miles away.
Like thousands of others in the Southeast, the girl’s family home had been destroyed during the worst natural disaster in the United States since Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
The twisters hurled pieces of their personal lives -- photographs, bank records, diplomas -- for dozens of miles and even into nearby states.
Since then, the scattered possessions of storm victims have connected complete strangers -- and prompted concerns about the potential for identity theft.
Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange has urged those who may have lost sensitive documents to take steps to protect the information, including monitoring credit reports and adding initial security alerts.
“This is a potential crisis that many may not anticipate as they are struggling to recover,” Strange said in a statement on Monday. “Vigilance and knowledge to prevent identity theft are our strongest weapons.”
Similar warnings are being sounded on a Facebook page created in an effort to return missing items to their owners.
More than 2,000 photos are posted on the page, titled “Pictures and Documents found after the April 27, 2011, Tornadoes.” Nearly 90,000 visitors said they “like” the page.
People report finding strangers’ canceled checks, clothes, family photos, rings and mail on their property. One woman said she found an original birth certificate.
Jerry Triplett, 59, said a photo of a woman hugging a child blew into his yard in Estille Springs, Tennessee, one of the seven Southern states hit by the storms.
He posted the photo on Facebook but hasn’t yet been contacted by its owner. “I‘m real curious how far this traveled,” Triplett said on Tuesday.
Weather experts aren’t surprised by the widespread scattering of personal belongings. In a supercell thunderstorm, debris gets picked up and then held aloft by upward-moving winds reaching 100 miles per hour, said Kristina Sumrall, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Birmingham.
“Heavier items will be held aloft until they work their way out of the updraft,” she said on Tuesday. “Paper items can be carried a very, very long distance.”
Radio news anchor Neal Vickers watched from his station as a monstrous funnel cloud plowed through the Birmingham suburb of Pleasant Grove.
“It was like a giant blender” spewing debris, he told Reuters.
Back home on his pasture in rural Steele, Alabama, Vickers gathered a collection of other people’s stuff.
He found a reconciled bank statement from Birmingham (50 miles away) and pages from a library book stamped Edgewater Junior High School (60 miles away).
A scrap of paper bore an address from Tuscaloosa, a city 100 miles west across the state.
Additional reporting by Verna Gates; Writing by Colleen Jenkins; Editing by Jerry Norton