Tuscaloosa, Ala. — Where is Johnnie Brown’s sister? Or the friend Billie Sue Hall talked to every day? A week after tornadoes ripped neighborhoods to shreds across the South, there still are no answers.
It’s unclear how many people are missing across the seven states where 329 deaths have been reported. There are 25 unaccounted for in Tuscaloosa alone, the mayor says, but that number could be off because of the chaos the storm left behind.
Cadaver dog teams across the region are scouring the debris to uncover whatever tragedies may remain, and even bad news would be comforting to anguished families.
Tracy Sargent’s dog team took just minutes to do what humans searching for hours could not: Locate the body of a University of Alabama student in a maze of twisted trees and debris. The young man’s father was there when the body was found in Tuscaloosa this week.
“(The father) went over there and bent over and touched his son and started talking to him,” Sargent said. “And he hugged him, started crying, and told him that he loved him and that he would miss him.”
Brown doesn’t know if that sort of moment awaits him. A picture of his sister, Latoya, smiling in an elegant orange dress, is posted on a wall of the Tuscaloosa shelter where he is staying. “Missing,” the paper says.
“When I think about it, man, I just want to be by myself. I don’t want nobody talking to me, nothing,” the 20-year-old said, his voice barely audible.
Brown said his 21-year-old sister had been visiting friends at Rosedale Apartments the day the tornado hit. Police are looking for her, and rescue crews who searched the complex Wednesday did not find her, but he said his family is starting to fear the worst.
He still tries calling Latoya’s cell phone, but gets agitated every time as it goes straight to voice mail.
Efforts to pin down the number of missing have been complicated by factors including multiple reports of the same missing person, or survivors who found shelter without contacting friends who reached out to police. Sometimes the police have only a first name.
“Obviously, there’s not a whole lot you can do with that information,” Tuscaloosa Police Chief Steven Anderson said Thursday.
Alabama officials are declining to say how many people could be missing statewide, and are now even keeping mum about the state’s official death toll as it re-examines the tally. They reduced the figure from 250 to 236 on Monday after accounting for a gruesome fact of the storm: Some victims had been counted more than once because parts of their bodies were found in more than one place.