A struggle to move forward a week after deadly tornadoes

Talmadge Rawlins talks about the afternoon of April 27, 2011, when a tornado destroyed his home, as he looks for personal belongings in the wreckage of his home May 6, 2011, in Pleasant Grove, Ala.
AP Photo
Talmadge Rawlins talks about the afternoon of April 27, 2011, when a tornado destroyed his home, as he looks for personal belongings in the wreckage of his home May 6, 2011, in Pleasant Grove, Ala.
AP Photo

HOLT, Ala. - It only took 20 seconds.

Elaine Davis and her husband Keith huddled together on patio furniture at the bottom of a Cold War-era bomb shelter as the tornado passed over them, just 15 feet above them.

"My husband could feel the pressure," said Elaine, who could see a blast of debris particles stream into the shelter from around the door cracks. "There was a big gust of wind and dust. It's still terrifying to me."

When she felt it was finally safe, she lifted the latches of the rusted metal door, looked through a crack and called to her husband, known to everyone as Butch.

"I said to Butch, 'The house is gone, the truck is gone,'" Elaine said.

That was more than a week ago.

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The frightening account of riding out the tornado is one of many from survivors in Elaine's neighborhood here and many others that stretch for miles in one of the deadliest tornado storms on record. In the end, five states were affected, and nearly 350 people were killed.

Her next door neighbor, Louise Snyder, surveyed the ruins of her home just across the street from the Davis family. At 82 years old, Snyder was happy just to find her late husband's World War II medals -- including the Purple Heart -- and the flag from his funeral, which her children hung from an overturned tree. And she's happy to be alive as she sits just feet from her demolished kitchen, where nothing but a few tea cups survived in the cabinet.

"I did a lot of cooking and had the family over all the time. After church. My special was my prime rib," Snyder said.

When asked where she will go now, Snyder said her decision will likely be to enter an assisted-living facility.

"I'm 82. I don't want to build another house," she said, sounding firm and exhausted.

From all over the state of Alabama, from Hackleburg to Tuscaloosa, from Pratt City to Alberta, people whose lives were changed in moments by the storm all struggled this week to find a direction to take as they began to rebuild what was blown apart and scattered -- homes, vehicles, businesses, memories.

And then there were those who lost friends and loved ones.

As CBS News correspondent Dean Reynolds said in one of his reports, the storm did not discriminate. From the most affluent to the poorest of neighborhoods, the near mile-wide path of devastation that scarred Alabama's landscape tossed million-dollar homes on their sides and crushed mobile homes like soda cans.

(Watch Reynolds' May 1 report for CBS' "Sunday Morning" at left)

One man in Pratt City said he jumped in his bathtub before it was flung several yards and landed him on his lawn -- a split-second decision which likely saved his life. The only thing left intact of his home was the brick front stoop and his kitchen floor, which now floats in his basement. His wife survived too. When asked what her name was, he said he didn't know how to spell it, but they had been together for many years.

(Watch Reynolds' April 28 report for the "CBS Evening News" at left)

The mayor of Tuscaloosa, Walt Maddox, expressed the fear of the thousands whose lives have been impacted by the storm -- that people outside of these communities will forget how long the recovery will take. And because the killing of Osama bin Laden has taken up most of the national news coverage this week, many feel that it's easy to lose focus of the tragedy that occurred here.

"It's great that we were able to kill Osama bin Laden, but what about today? What about today's victims?" Maddox told CBS News correspondent Elaine Quijano Tuesday. "Thousands of people tonight in Tuscaloosa who go to bed without homes with no ability to know what the future holds for them. Please don't forget us because we have to deal with today, and today we've got a lot of people hurting."

A trucker named Chris, who watched the tornado from less than a mile away before heading for cover, wondered where the celebrities are that usually answer the call for donations and attention after a disaster of this magnitude.

"Who's the only one who was here this week besides a few athletes? It was Charlie Sheen," said Chris. "Now when something like a tsunami happens in Japan thousands of miles away, you've got Hollywood jumping up to help. What are they doing for us?"

But aside from feeling forgotten, there's also a strange feeling of normalcy that has settled into the minds of those who have lost everything. As the second week since the storm nears, Elaine Davis, who rode out the storm in her bomb shelter, said she doesn't identify with the world outside of her anguished neighborhood.

"It sounds crazy, but I think I love being out there more than ever. It's more peaceful," said Elaine, who is living with her husband inside a camper parked in the driveway where her home once stood. "This is my environment for the time being."

And although she has nothing left but a few possessions and Butch, Davis said she wakes up in the morning feeling more rested than she did before the tornado struck

"The sunrise, it's real pretty, the clouds and the different colors," she said. "Not a whole of trees. I guess it's mostly the sky."