PRATT CITY, Ala. – The beat-up pickup truck patrolled beat-up Pratt City, stopping at taped-off intersections as volunteers jumped out of the back to hand out water and groceries to residents of this Birmingham suburb ravaged by the second-deadliest day for a twister outbreak in U.S. history.
Down the road, dozens more volunteers transformed the local elementary school into a community pit stop. One room was devoted to storing bread, another to sorting donated clothing. A doctor set up shop in one part of the building, and volunteers staffed the grill in front while college students formed an assembly line to unload trucks stuffed with fresh supplies.
"I'm from the community but my house wasn't damaged, so I had to help," said Elsie Bailey, who was working in a room doling out men's clothing. "We were so amazed at the destruction that I just wanted to help. People are really stepping up, coming through."
Across the South, volunteers have been pitching in as the death toll from Wednesday's storms keeps rising. At least 339 people were killed across seven states, including at least 248 in Alabama, as the storm system spawned tornadoes through several states. There were 34 deaths in Mississippi, 34 in Tennessee, 15 in Georgia, five in Virginia, two in Louisiana and one in Kentucky.
It was the largest death toll since March 18, 1925, when 747 people were killed in storms that raged through Missouri, Illinois and Indiana. That was long before the days when Doppler radar could warn communities of severe weather. Forecasters have said residents were told these tornadoes were coming. But they were just too wide and powerful and in populated areas to avoid the horrifying body count.
Storms can still defeat technology. This week's tornadoes devastated the infrastructure of emergency safety workers. Emergency buildings were wiped out, bodies were being stored in refrigerated trucks, and authorities were left to beg for such basics as flashlights. In one neighborhood, the storms even left firefighters to work without a truck.
Volunteers stepped in to help almost as soon as the storms passed through. They ditched their jobs, shelled out their paychecks, donated blood and even sneaked past police blockades to get aid to some of the hardest-hit communities struck by the deadliest tornado disaster since 1925.
"We're part of the community, and we're called to reach out and help people," said Ken Osvath of the Church of the Highlands, one of an untold number of volunteers who handed out supplies to victims in Alabama.
Thousands of people were injured — 990 in Tuscaloosa alone — and thousands of properties were destroyed. As many as 1 million Alabama homes and businesses remained without power.
The scale of the disaster astonished President Barack Obama when he arrived in the state Friday.
"I've never seen devastation like this," he said, standing in sunshine amid the wreckage in Tuscaloosa, where entire neighborhoods were flattened.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency has responded to all affected areas and has officials on the ground in Alabama, Mississippi, Kentucky, Georgia and Tennessee, Director Craig Fugate said.
Tuscaloosa Mayor Walt Maddox called it "a humanitarian crisis" for his city of more than 83,000, but he said the situation would have spiraled out of control if not for the volunteers who worked to quickly get supplies for people.
Shamiya Clancy is one of those in desperate need of shelter after the homes where she and her family lived in the Alberta City neighborhood were wiped out. They're now pooling their resources — clothes, money, food, whatever they can scrounge — but none of them have anywhere else to go.
A stuffed bear that her husband gave her on Valentine's Day this year was the sole belonging she recovered when she sifted through the rubble. She was hoping to find family photos.
"If I could have found one picture, I'd be OK. I'd feel a little better," she said.
In Rainsville, a northeast Alabama town devastated by the storms, people in cars stopped to offer bread, water and crackers to residents picking through what was left of their belongings. A radio station broadcast offers of help, a store gave away air mattresses and an Italian restaurant served free hot meals. A glass shop offered to replace shattered windows for free.
Emergency services were stretched particularly thin about 90 miles to the north in the demolished town of Hackleburg, Ala., where officials were keeping the dead in a refrigerated truck because of a shortage of body bags. At least 27 people were killed there and the search for missing people continued, with FBI agents fanning out to local hospitals to help.
Tuscaloosa's emergency management center was destroyed, so officials used space in one of the city's most prominent buildings — the University of Alabama's Bryant-Denny Stadium — as a substitute before moving operations to the Alabama Fire College.
City employee Gene Hopkins was delivering loads of supplies to different parts of Tuscaloosa when he took a break to help Barbara Deerman, a restaurant owner at the strip mall, board up her shattered front door.
"I appreciate this," Deerman said. "I'll give you a free meal when we get this back up."
Other volunteers set up a makeshift relief station at a parking lot in Alberta City neighborhood, where scores of homes and businesses have been reduced to twisted piles of metal, glass and wood. It was staffed by a mix of city employees, church members, National Guard troops and supermarket workers, and residents lined up for water, food and other basic supplies.
"We've got people who wanted to get in here and help, but they couldn't get in earlier," said relief station volunteer Doug Milligan, a Tuscaloosa native who is principal of a high school in nearby Woodstock, Ala.
Milligan had to sneak past the police blockades cordoning off the neighborhood. He figures he got by because he wore a T-shirt that read: "Bibb County Red Cross."
"I didn't tell them it's only because I ran a 5K," he said.