TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Among the auto dealers in the South in the path of the tornadoes on April 27, Jack Leigh got off easy.
His Leigh Mercedes-Benz in Tuscaloosa, Ala., received not even a paint scratch from the storms that killed 350 people and battered communities in eight states in a single day.
But Leigh faces a lingering catastrophe. His city is in ruins.
Tuscaloosa, a university town of restored old mansions, was ripped inside-out by a mile-wide tornado. Entire neighborhoods were destroyed, with about 5,000 homes wrecked. Shopping centers, offices, factories, churches and schools have been reduced to piles of bricks -- or wiped away, leaving only blank building pads.
Cars, upside-down trucks, splintered lumber, a pink bathrobe here, couches and refrigerators there, enormous tree trunks and children's toys form piles of debris as tall as houses.
This is not an auto industry disaster. It is a human crisis, a community disaster.
But for a second-generation auto retailer like Leigh, 61, a former director of the National Automobile Dealers Association who just spent $1 million renovating his store, those words -- "auto industry" and "community" -- are linked.
"This is my neighborhood," he says, amid the rubble of what used to be a commercial area a short drive from his dealership. An AutoZone retail store was reduced to bricks and dust. A nearby metalworking shop is missing.
"I'm worried about us losing population because so many homes and businesses are destroyed," Leigh says. "People can't wait months for a new home to live in. Small businesses are gone, which hurts our employment base. People will move on to another town.
"I have a friend and customer who told me all three of his cars were destroyed," he adds. "But cars aren't his priority right now. He also lost his house."
AIR Worldwide, an international catastrophe modeling firm used by the insurance industry, estimates that property damage from the April tornado outbreak could reach $5.5 billion. One insurer, State Farm, has received 19,500 vehicle damage claims from the storm in Tennessee alone.
The storms unleashed 134 tornadoes across eight states, according to the National Weather Service. In Arkansas, violent winds crashed in part of the roof at Ford of West Memphis, shattering store windows and damaging vehicles.
Three hundred miles away in Ringgold, Ga., as Chevrolet dealer Danny Jackson and his wife hid in their home, a tornado pulled mature oak trees out of their neighbor's lawn. It demolished his Walter Jackson Chevrolet showroom a mile and a half away, ruining most of his inventory.