BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- For as long as even the very oldest can remember, the wail of warning sirens atop courthouses, little police stations, and volunteer fire departments has pierced the calm of the drowsy Alabama communities of Rock Creek, Oak Grove, and Sylvan Springs.
It chases the people deep into their basements and down on their knees, till the skies clear and they walk outside to see who was spared, who was not.
Always, their prayers seemed to nudge the full force of the wind away, so that while a few lives have always been lost, a few houses destroyed, the communities have survived.
The trip to the basement is almost always merely a precaution, almost an adventure. People take boxes of saltines and jugs of iced tea, and listen to a storm's progress on battery-powered radios.
In the most rural areas, people retreat to storm shelters. Young people who live in trailers, the most fragile places in a storm, flee to their parents' homes to wait out the tornado.
It is almost fun, a fellowship, an excuse to visit, to turn off the television. Usually.
Thursday morning, as the sun rose over a landscape in which people knew their houses only from the shards of a once precious china pattern or numbers on a flattened mailbox, they faced something new.
"This was our community," Lee Evans, 32, said, standing next to the pile of brick and splinters that had been her house in Sylvan Springs. The block was in ruins, the wreckage mixed together by the winds. One person's losses spilled into the next, and the next, hundreds in all in the 21-mile path of Wednesday night's tornado.
With so much of this once-peaceful landscape destroyed, death, also on an unprecedented scale, had been inevitable. The storms that raged in a ragged line from Mississippi through Alabama and into Georgia killed 44 -- 33 in Jefferson County, west of Birmingham, and in neighboring St. Clair County. Several people were missing, although most of the damaged houses had been searched.
In a region where tornadoes are as much a part of the culture as fishing for bass, praising the Lord, and banana pudding, this was different from what they are used to as a briar scratch is from a bullet wound.
"It was like being in a meat grinder," said Mike Breedlove, who hauled injured people from the wreckage of Oak Grove in the back of his pickup.
About 100 people were injured, and 1,000 others were left homeless, most of them absorbed by friends and relatives who responded to the worst disaster people here can remember, or even imagine.
In Alabama alone, more than 1,000 houses were destroyed or badly damaged.
Whole blocks were destroyed in Oak Grove, Rock Creek, Sylvan Springs and Edgewater.
In Oak Grove, the tornado wrecked the high school.
In McDonald Chapel, it destroyed the Open Door Church.
In Concord, the winds snatched a 7-month-old baby out of her mother's arms. The child is in critical condition in a Birmingham hospital, with a punctured lung, damage to her spleen and cuts on her face.
But widely circulated reports that a 9-month-old child had survived hours alone amid the death and destruction in Jefferson County are now being looked at with skepticism by authorities, according to the Associated Press.
Although Sheriff's Sgt. Mike Ozley had said the baby was found with the help of a heat-seeking device, he later said officers had picked up erroneous information.
Vice President Al Gore, who toured the Alabama wreckage by helicopter, said the damage was "unprecedented" and that the amount of federal aid "must also be unprecedented," although he did not specify exactly what would be done for the hundreds of people left homeless and others facing hospital bills.
At Children's Hospital in Birmingham, several children -- some with spinal cord injuries -- were in critical or serious condition.
Many of them, one hospital worker said, do not know that their parents are dead.
It all tested the faith of people in a part of the country where the image of Christ on the Cross stares from kitchen walls and bumper stickers.
But even as some of them admitted to not being able to fathom all this destruction just before Good Friday, when so many people fill churches and join in Easter pageants and egg hunts, most retreated into their faith.
John Loper, the pastor at Garywood Assembly of God, in nearby Hueytown, drove the church van to Rock Creek to check on members of his parish.
A woman he did not know walked up to him on a devastated street and asked if he would stand with her while a group of men dragged the body of her mother from a ruined house.
"I remained with her until the body was removed," he said. "We prayed together.
"I have never witnessed this kind of devastation in my life," the pastor said.
But even in the middle of sadness there were miracles, he said.
Margaret Salter and her husband, Finley, are members of his church. Finley Salter was at their home when the tornado destroyed it around him. He lay in the rubble for three hours, surrounded by fallen power lines.
"Had not a scratch on him," Loper said.
Preachers asked their parishioners not to question God in this, not to try to figure out why some people were spared and others died under the crushing weight of lumber, brick and concrete.
"There's a lot we don't understand," Loper said. "The only thing we can be certain of is, we're not in control."
Easter, he said, "is a time of renewal and rebirth."
He said he hoped that, if anything, this disaster convinced people to cleave even closer to their faith.
Pub Date: 4/11/98