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Volunteers rush to help after tornadoes

By Ben Smith, Mariano Castillo and Phil Gast, CNN
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Sunday declared a day of prayer in Alabama
  • Death toll from South's latest tornado outbreak tweaked to 339
  • Storms caused at least $2 billion in insured losses, catastrophe expert firm says
  • Alabama death toll adjusted to 250

Do you live in a town that's been affected by the recent tornadoes? Are you a volunteer or rescue worker helping with recovery efforts? CNN and iReport want to hear your story. Share your stories, video and photos.

(CNN) -- As emergency responders continued to count the dead on Saturday, states pulverized by this week's tornado outbreak encouraged volunteers to help -- but in an orderly way.

In Alabama, where at least 250 people died, a call center is receiving 2,000 to 3,000 calls a day.

Officials working with the United Way are urging people to go to www.servealabama.gov or call 2-1-1 statewide to offer their assistance.

After the search and recovery efforts, people will be needed for months to help with specific tasks, said Jon Mason, director of the Governor's Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives.

"We're overwhelmed in a positive way by the willingness to help from within the state and the rest of the United States," he said.

Interactive map: Severe weather in the Southeast

It is important for volunteers to register; the state is especially trying to get that message to people not affiliated with specific groups, Mason said.

He warned that volunteers need to be self-equipped and reliant since many areas have no water and no power to operate gas stations.

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According to the Alabama Emergency Management Agency, at least 45 people people died during the storms in Tuscaloosa County, more than in any of the other five states that recorded deaths from Wednesday's violent weather.

By early Saturday morning, emergency management officials tallied 250 deaths in Alabama, 34 in Tennessee, 34 in Mississippi, 15 in Georgia, five in Virginia and one in Arkansas.

More than 1,700 Alabamians were injured, Gov. Robert Bentley told reporters Saturday.

"Our thoughts and prayers are with all the people of this state," Bentley said. He declared Sunday to be a statewide day of prayer.

In DeKalb County, Alabama, where 33 are dead, residents won't be able to rebuild until the searches are over and power is fully restored.

Chief Deputy Michael Edmondson of the county sheriff's office has done aerial flyovers.

"You can see the path of the storm. You can see where it struck and bounced," Edmondson said.

People struggle to regain sense of normal

As funerals for victims began, stories of random death and survival were commonplace.

A young Alabama resident told CNN Saturday of his harrowing ordeal.

Huddled in the hallway of his home with three of his friends, Tillman Merritt had a gut feeling to jump into a closet as the massive twister barreled into the Tuscaloosa, Alabama, neighborhood.

Moments later, he was the only one to survive.

"I just heard a voice in my head saying, 'Go to the closet, go to the closet,' " Merritt said.

The closet walls pushed down on him as a roar surrounded him, followed by the sounds of pieces of the house snapping off. Then the crack of glass was heard, and insulation was flying everywhere.

When it was over, there was just a small hole for Merritt to crawl out of. Except for the closet he was in, the entire house -- and his three friends -- had been flung across the street.

He found the other three in the wreckage of the house, in a pile. His roommate and lifelong friend was dead. The two others would die of their injuries.

Tennessee father, son act quickly to survive

Among the victims for whom memorial services are planned starting Sunday were four students of the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. The area has been the focal point for the Wednesday to Thursday disaster that swept through six Southern states and killed at least 339 people.

Morgan Sigler, a senior graphic design major from Bryant, Alabama, died when the storm struck Merritt's house.

She suffered internal injuries and died during surgery, her mother said.

Sigler's is one of scores of heart-rending stories to come out of the battered South.

"She just lit up our world; she was our baby," Vega Sigler said. Her daughter was the kind of person who reached out to those in need, and she enjoyed the mission trips she undertook with her church, Sigler said.

"We know where she's at, but it doesn't make it any easier," her mother said.

Ground Zero in Tuscaloosa: Horror and hope, tears and prayers

She was the creative type, and would build projects that she would give out as gifts to family members, Vega Sigler said. A professor even called to tell her parents how much potential Morgan Sigler had as a graphic designer.

Not far from where Morgan Sigler lived, Cody Kirk watched from his apartment complex as debris flew in the air nearby. It sounded like an engine from a 747 airliner for about three minutes, he said.

"I go around the corner, and there's nothing. There's absolutely nothing," he said.

Kirk was close friends with Morgan Sigler and knew the two other victims, Scott Atterton and Blake Peak.

Atterton was known for his kind heart. He was not the sort of person who was satisfied with a handshake.

He would tell Kirk, "Bring it in for the real thing," and give him a hug.

Peak was Morgan Sigler's boyfriend. He made her really happy, Kirk said.

See photos of the devastation

The University of Alabama student newspaper, The Crimson White, began tallying e-mails from students who were searching for missing friends. Within hours, the newspaper had received 68 e-mails from worried students.

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Graduate student Arefeen Shamsuzzoha toured much of the city Friday, taking photographs of the damage.

"The trees are completely stripped of all of their branches," Shamsuzzoha told CNN Saturday morning. "The ones that are standing just look like sticks rising from the ground."

The storms wreaked between $2 billion and $5 billion in insured losses across the region, according to the catastrophe modeling firm, Eqecat.

Weather records go back to 1680. Since then there has been only one other date in U.S. history on which more people died during a tornado. On March 18, 1925, a severe storm system swept across seven states killing 747 people, according to the National Weather Service.

Weather officials say the reason why so many perished was due to the size and path of the tornadoes. Meteorologists rely on what is called an "Enhanced Fujita Scale" to rate the severity of tornadoes.

The lowest ranking, EF0, applies to twisters with recorded 3-second wind gusts of 65 to 85 mph, according to the National Weather Service. The highest, an EF5, is assigned to tornadoes with speeds of more than 200 mph.

The weather service has so far recorded 11 tornadoes with EF3 ratings or higher that struck central and north Alabama on Wednesday. Some of the twisters were three-quarters of a mile wide and traveled dozens of miles, experts said.

CNN iReport: The Aftermath

"That's an astounding amount for a single-day tornado event." said Krissy Scotten, a weather service meteorologist in Birmingham, Alabama. "It's one of those instances where you had very large tornadoes on very long tracks hitting heavily populated areas."

"When you put that together, you're going to see large loss of life and massive devastation," Scotten said.

An EF4 touched down in Hackleburg, Alabama, killing 29 people in the town of nearly 1,600 residents.

The storms destroyed almost every business in the city. A doctor's office. The pharmacy. A ball field.

"It's pretty much wiped out," said Marion County Sheriff Kevin Williams. "It looks like a war zone."

From there, the tornado traveled more than 39 miles across three counties, said Chelly Amin, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Huntsville, Alabama.

The same tornado, Amin said, virtually destroyed the tiny town of Phil Campbell, which has a population of little more than 1,000.

CNN's Sarah Hoye contributed to this report.

 
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