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Alabama State Rep. Gray Tours Tornado-Wrecked Area By Helicopter

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Let's listen to the voice now of Jay Jones. He's the sheriff of Lee County, Ala. He saw his community hit on Sunday by the deadliest tornado in the United States since 2013.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JAY JONES: I have not seen this type of level of destruction ever in my experience here in Lee County. And that covers the span back, I know, for at least 50 years. We have not had anything of this nature before.

GREENE: Twenty-three people are confirmed dead. Many of those who were injured were taken to the East Alabama Medical Center in nearby Opelika, the county seat of Lee County. It is also the home of state representative Jeremy Gray, who represents Lee County. And he joins me on the line this morning.

Thank you for taking the time, and we're all thinking about your community. I'm so sorry for what you've been through.

JEREMY GRAY: Thank you. Thanks for having me.

GREENE: Could you just tell me - I understand you actually were in the hospital on Sunday as people were being brought in who endured this tornado. What was it like there?

JONES: So I was in Selma originally for the Jubilee celebration to hear my minority leader speak. I got the call around about, like, 3:30. And immediately after that, I drove back to Opelika. My mom works at the East Alabama Medical Center and she was trying to give me, like, a feedback, play-by-play, what was going on. So I reached out to the governor's staff and just let them know what was going on, talked to Alabama EMA Brian Hastings. He connected me to Lee County EMA Kathrine Carson.

So as I pulled up, I really didn't know what to expect. I thought maybe there would be a few people out. But when I arrived at the hospital, there were so many people outside, the emergency room was so congested, that they moved everybody to the lobby. And the only people that could be in the emergency room is people who needed care.

GREENE: Wow.

GRAY: So I went into the lobby, and I was just comforting people. And I learned about Tyreesha Hart (ph), who's 28 years old, who has a missing child. Or the Stenton (ph) family, who lost three out of five of their family members in it. It was just a lot going on, a lot of commotion going on. A lot of people was there praying - preachers, volunteers. People were bringing in food. So among this chaos, you felt a little peace in a community coming together. It was a lot of heartbreak. It was a play-by-play. People were actually confirming deaths while we was in the hospital.

GREENE: Wow.

GRAY: And so it was just a hard thing to take in because it was so dear to my heart, and we'd never seen any impact like this in Opelika or Lee County and it was just heartbreaking.

GREENE: You went in a helicopter yesterday, right, to really see the damage from above? I mean, and obviously, this is your community. How bad is it? What did it look like?

GRAY: Well, initially, I was talking to those same people the night before. They was telling me about Lee County, Lee Road 39, Lee Road 38 and just the different parts of our community that was depleted by the storm. So the next day, which was yesterday, I went and got a aerial view of different spots or different locations, and it looked like a war zone. I mean, homes are thrown to the other side of the land. Trees are everywhere. Just, neighborhoods are demolished. They are not even recognizable.

GREENE: What is the greatest need right now? What do people need the most?

GRAY: I mean, everybody's coming together with efforts - water, nonperishable items, socks, underclothes, things of that nature. So we're doing a good job. Church of the Highlands, Greater Peace Baptist Church, Providence Baptist Church are all drop spots. The thing that I've come across the most is that people are going to need homes because their home has been demolished. A lot of families died - like, six or seven at a time, and they didn't have insurance. So we need to try to figure out how to cover some of those burial costs. And those are the two major things that I have heard of that we have to figure out.

GREENE: All right.

GRAY: Food, the water, those things of that nature, they're being taken care of because we have a good community - a good, strong community, and people are coming together. But what is going to happen two weeks from now, three weeks from now, a month from now? So we have to start creating a plan of action that can help long-term.

GREENE: Well, we'll all be rooting for your community. Representative Jeremy Gray of Opelika, Ala., thank you so, so much for the time.

GRAY: Thank you for having me.

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: A previous version of this story misidentified the sheriff of Lee County, Alabama as Lee Jones. He is Jay Jones.] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: March 4, 2019 at 11:00 PM CST
A previous version of this broadcast story misidentified the sheriff of Lee County, Ala., as Lee Jones. He is Jay Jones.