Battered by deadly twisters, Tennessee community worries about looters, missing

By Dan Sewell

LAFAYETTE, Tenn. (AP)–In the aftermath of stunningly deadly and destructive tornadoes, this hard-hit community now has other worries – looters, power shortages and a large number of residents still unaccounted for.

“They’re going to have the looters and then the metal scrappers giving them hell,” said Jason Newsse, who came from Myrtle Beach, S.C., to help authorities with search and recovery efforts that included cadaver-detecting dogs.

“That’s what I’m worried about,” said Sonja Stovall, who sought assurances Thursday that police would patrol her ravaged neighborhood until she returned to salvage what she could from her heavily damaged home.

Residents across Tennessee, Kentucky, Mississippi, Alabama and Arkansas are still reeling after the nation’s deadliest twister rampage in two decades killed 59 people. President Bush was touring this hard-hit community and others Friday, and even before he landed, declared major disasters in Tennessee and Arkansas.

The move opens the spigot of federal funding to cover some costs, shared with local governments, for debris removal and protective measures and to help individuals. Sensitive to criticism it was ignoring other states hit by the storms, the White House said these were the only two states that had so far asked for help.

“There’s no doubt in my mind this community will come back better than before,” Bush said in the poor tobacco-farming area near the Kentucky border. “Macon County people are down-to-earth, hardworking, God-fearing people. They’re just getting a little help and will come back stronger.”

Authorities here said they need all the help they can get. “I think when you look at the area, it’s pretty obvious,” Macon County Mayor Shelvy Linville said.

Macon County was under a 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew. Sheriff’s Detective Jeff Brewer said authorities received many calls about looters, though he didn’t have details. Access to the worst-damaged areas was tightly controlled by police during the day, with residents required to show identification at checkpoints before going to their homes.

The rural county along the Kentucky border took the heaviest toll. A 14th death was reported Thursday, and the whereabouts of 230 county residents remained unknown, said Melissa McDonald, a spokeswoman for the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency. It was believed the missing were most likely staying with relatives or in hotels outside the county, but authorities found three people Wednesday night in a basement where they had been trapped.

Searchers went door to door Thursday, marking homes with taped X’s afterward.

Utility workers, including crews coming from other areas, worked to restore power across the county, which Lafayette Mayor Bill Wells called “priority No. 1,” especially in chilly morning temperatures below 40 degrees.

“You can’t heat a home. You can’t cook,” Wells said. “You can’t do anything without power.”

Meanwhile, a minister who helped lead tornado recovery efforts in Lafayette and his family were killed in a traffic accident Thursday. Authorities said Michael Welch, his wife, 11-year-old daughter and 14-year-old son died when their van was struck by a tractor-trailer.

Authorities also said Friday a county resident died from carbon monoxide poisoning from a generator he was using to power his storm-damaged home. County emergency medical director Randall Kirby says authorities will decide later whether to count the death as part of the tornado’s toll.

The town’s McDonald’s reopened, quickly creating jammed counters and a drive-thru backup spilling into the road. Other fast-food restaurants also opened.

People streamed in from out of town with offers to help with whatever needed to be done.

“I really appreciate it,” said Jerry Anderson, referring to a dozen people helping retrieve belongings and pile up debris from a home where the only thing still standing was the bathroom where Anderson, his wife and their four children survived the tornado. “I don’t know none of these people. They’re just good people.”

In Atkins, Ark., funerals were beginning Friday for the storm victims. Russellville Bible Baptist Church normally sees 100 parishioners during a typical service, but Friday, the church had to set up television screens in a church gymnasium to accommodate an overflow crowd expected for the Cherry family, among those killed in the storm.

The bronze, silver and white caskets of the family took up so much space the pastor had to rearrange the front of the church to hold them.

“It’s extremely difficult to cope with,” Pastor Ron Kauffman said. “There’s no explanation for a tragedy like this.”

Jimmy, 40, Dana, 43, and their 11-year-old daughter Emmy were found dead immediately following Tuesday afternoon’s tornado. On Southeast Second Street, a one-story ranch home stood unscathed across the street from a concrete slab that had supported the house where the Cherrys once lived.

Mourners waited in line Friday to sign guest registries and watch a video with family photos as piano music played in the background. Cars filled a nearby pasture that was used for extra parking.

Associated Press writers Beth Rucker and Bill Poovey in Castalian Springs, Tenn., Ryan Lenz in Lafayette, Tenn., Marcus Kabel in Gassville, Ark., Jon Gambrell and Allen G. Breed in Atkins, Ark. and Erik Schelzig in Jackson, Tenn., contributed to this report.