* Deaths in worst-hit state, Alabama, climb to 255
* Survivors in shelters, camped out in shattered homes
* Property insurance losses estimated at $2 bln to $5 bln
By Verna Gates
PLEASANT GROVE, Ala., April 30 The death toll
from the second deadliest U.S. tornado outbreak on record rose
above 350 on Saturday as thousands of stunned survivors camped
out in the shattered shells of their homes or moved into
shelters or with friends.
With some estimates putting the number of homes and
buildings destroyed close to 10,000, state and federal
authorities in the U.S. South were still coming to terms with
the scale of the devastation from the country's worst natural
catastrophe since Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
One disaster risk modeler, EQECAT, is forecasting insured
property losses of between $2 billion and $5 billion from the
havoc inflicted by the swarm of violent twisters that gouged
through seven southern states this week.
The death toll in Alabama, the hardest-hit state, rose to
255 on Saturday, with at least 101 more deaths reported in
Mississippi, Tennessee, Arkansas, Georgia, Virginia and
"We're in the thousands of homes completely gone ... It's
not an exaggeration to say that whole communities were wiped
out," Yasamie August, spokeswoman for the Alabama Emergency
Management Agency, told Reuters.
Full coverage of this week's tornadoes [ID:nN28284934]
Factbox on deadliest U.S. tornado days [ID:nN28269147]
Factbox on states hit by tornadoes [ID:nN29148979]
Factbox on tornado survival tips [ID:nN29161421]
In many communities in the U.S. South, the scenes of
destruction with tangled piles of rubble, timber, vehicles and
personal possessions recalled the devastation seen in the
recent Japanese earthquake and tsunami.
Power and water were still out in many areas.
"It is like living in some other world. Devastation is
everywhere," said Pastor John Gates of the United Methodist
Church in Pleasant Grove, a community with a population of some
10,000 west of Birmingham, Alabama.
The death toll from the week's tornado outbreak, which is
still expected to rise, was the second highest inflicted by
this kind of weather phenomenon in U.S. history. In March 1925,
747 people were killed after tornadoes hit the U.S. Midwestern
states of Missouri, Illinois and Indiana.
President Obama, mindful of criticism that President George
W. Bush was too slow to respond to the 2005 Katrina
catastrophe, visited the wrecked city of Tuscaloosa, Alabama,
on Friday to pledge full federal assistance for the states hit.
NEIGHBORHOODS "LAID FLAT"
Some of the twisters -- the winds of one in Smithville,
Mississippi, was recorded reaching 205 miles (328 km) per hour
-- picked up people and cars and hurled them through the air.
Rescuers were still searching for bodies and those
unaccounted for. But the total of missing was not clear.
Many whose homes only lost roofs and windows were camping
inside with tarps and plastic sheeting over them, but those
whose houses were completely razed were forced to move in with
family or friends or go into government shelters.
"Most people are living in the parts of their houses that
are still standing. But for some people, you can't even tell
where their houses were. They are with family, friends or in
hotels," said Gates, 63.
"We still have missing people to find," he added.
There were 659 people in shelters across Alabama, August
said. Tennessee had 233 people in shelters.
As state and federal authorities increased efforts to clear
rubble and provide food and water to homeless survivors,
volunteers in many local communities also turned out to help
the most affected.
"There's lots of commotion with big trucks coming in and
the sound of chainsaws. Big grills are set up everywhere to
offer people food. The community has really pulled together,
said Tammy Straate, 29, a foster mother in Pleasant Grove who
cares for 11 children ages 5-16.
"For blocks and blocks, everything is just laid flat,"
Straate added. "Our little community will never be the same.
Some people say they are just not going to rebuild."
Tornadoes are a regular feature of life in the U.S. South
and Midwest, but they are rarely so devastating.
Recovery could cost billions of dollars and even with
federal disaster aid it could complicate efforts by affected
states to bounce back from recession. [ID:nN29159681]
The tornadoes mauled Alabama's poultry industry -- the
state is the No. 3 U.S. chicken producer -- halted a coal mine
and hurt other manufacturers across the state.
The second-biggest U.S. nuclear power plant, the Browns
Ferry facility in Alabama, may be down for weeks after its
power was knocked out and the plant automatically shut,
avoiding a nuclear disaster, officials said.
(Additional reporting by Colleen Jenkins in St. Petersburg,
Peggy Gargis in Birmingham, Pascal Fletcher in Miami, Writing
by Pascal Fletcher; Editing by Eric Beech)