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Southern twisters hit an economy already hurting

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Lineman Derrick Heisz of Broadhead, Wis., surveys the damage in Pratt City, Ala., Tuesday, May 3, 2011. Utility companies are scrambling to restore services to the hard hit area before heavy rains arrive. Lineman Derrick Heisz of Broadhead, Wis., surveys the damage in Pratt City, Ala., Tuesday, May 3, 2011. Utility companies are scrambling to restore services to the hard hit area before heavy rains arrive.

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) — The tornado that obliterated contractor Robert Rapley's house also swept away his livelihood, destroying his saws, his paint sprayer and his truck. Like thousands of others in a region already struggling with high unemployment, he now faces the prospect of trying to recover with no way to earn a living.

"We lost everything," Rapley said as he climbed on the wreckage. "I can't even go to work."

Thousands were thrown out of work by the twisters last week that killed 328 people across seven states in the nation's deadliest tornado outbreak since the Depression. Hundreds of factories and other businesses were destroyed, and many others were left without electricity.

The financial and economic toll is still being tallied, but officials in hardest-hit Alabama — which had more than two-thirds of the dead — said the damage there alone could rival the $1 billion in insured losses the state suffered in Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

"It's going to be extremely high," said Seth Hammett, director of the Alabama Development Office.

Many people were struggling to make ends meet even before the twisters flattened neighborhoods in Alabama, Tennessee, Georgia and Mississippi, where unemployment in March ranged from 9.2 percent in Alabama to 10.2 percent in Mississippi.

Curtis Frederick, 28, couldn't find any work to provide for his three children aside from delivering newspapers. Then a twister wiped out his mobile home park in Tuscaloosa.

"There's a lot of people that need help," he said. "We're struggling already from the economy being so bad."

Rain in several of the states on Tuesday added to the misery for those trying to salvage belongings from badly damaged homes. In gray and chilly Tuscaloosa, many lost everything, including coats, sweatshirts and sweaters, leaving them shivering in unseasonable temperatures in the low 50s.

Becky Curtis sat in the bathroom, one of the only dry spots in her small red-brick apartment, sorting through old cassette tapes. In another room, rain dripped through holes in the ceiling onto her hardwood floors.

"We're trying to get all this stuff out of here as fast as we can to save some mementoes," she said. The rain "definitely does not help."

One of the twisters destroyed a Wrangler jeans distribution center that employed 150 people in Hackleburg, an Alabama town of about 1,500. The town is in a county with an unemployment rate of nearly 13 percent.

"That one industry is the town," Hammett said. "Until they get back up and going again, that town will not be the same."

VF Corp., Wrangler's parent company, said it is looking into setting up distribution operations in another location nearby to allow people to get back to work quickly, and employees will continue to receive pay and benefits in the meantime. Eric Wiseman, chairman and CEO, said VF is also establishing a help center where workers can receive food, water, gift cards and other critical supplies.

A Toyota engine plant in Huntsville with 800 employees lost power and was knocked out of commission when a twister damaged electrical transmission lines. Toyota said Tuesday it is not clear when electricity will be restored.

In Smithville, Miss., the storms heavily damaged three facilities owned by Townhouse Home Furnishings, which makes sofas and other furniture, said CFO Tony Watson. With 150 employees, the company was the town's biggest employer, Alderman Jimmy Dabbs said.

The company will relocate its Smithville operations to a publicly owned building in Mantachie, about a 30 minute drive from Smithville. About 25 Smithville employees are already back to work at other plants in nearby towns.

"We're trying to keep our people working so they can get a paycheck. It could be six months or a year before we reopen in Smithville and they have to keep up with orders or we'll lose out accounts," Watson said.

Georgia put insured property losses at $75 million or more, while Dan Batey of Farm Bureau Insurance of Tennessee said his company expects to pay out somewhere around $100 million in claims. Officials in Mississippi and Tennessee had no immediate estimates.

In the Pleasant Grove section of Birmingham, Katrina Mathus has not returned to work since a tornado blew out her windows, knocked out her electricity and exposed insulation that she said is causing her asthmatic daughter to wheeze.

The 35-year-old single mother of three daughters said the instability caused by living in different hotels for the past few days has kept her returning to her job as a nurse. She is having trouble sleeping.

"Every time I close my eyes I see trees, people walking and crying, debris everywhere," she said.

People thrown out of work by the storms will qualify for unemployment benefits as well as federal disaster aid.

It's tough to predict how long it will take for the stricken areas to recover, but the rebuilding projects could at least soften the economic blow.

"The rebuilding is huge," said Sam Addy, director of the Center for Business and Economic Research at the University of Alabama. "That brings in a lot of jobs and cash flow into the local area. For the larger economy, it's a loss."

In Birmingham, Rapley and his wife, Adrienne, survived the twister by taking cover in a storage room next to his garage. He carried her in — she suffers from a brain injury — and then they prayed: "The Lord is my shepherd." The deed to his property is gone, whisked away by the tornadoes. The house they shared for 20 years is destroyed.

For now, they are staying at a hotel, hoping they get federal aid soon.

"It's very expensive," Rapley said. "We're spending our last dime right now."


Contributing to this report were Jay Reeves in Tuscaloosa, Ala.; Randall Dickerson in Nashville, Tenn.; Holbrook Mohr in Jackson, Miss.; and Ray Henry in Atlanta.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.

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