Ruth Cole becomes emotional while digging through her destroyed business on May 1, 2011 in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Cole had no insurance on her business or her home, which was also destroyed in the storm. (Tom Pennington/GETTY IMAGES)

By Saturday evening, the Federal Emergency Management Agency had received more than 4,900 calls from Alabama residents seeking assistance with the numbers expected to climb sharply Sunday, according to the agency’s administrator, W. Craig Fugate. Fugate said dozens of FEMA inspectors are assessing damaged properties with more on the way to help quickly approve federal aid payments.

Napolitano and Fugate are joined on the trip by Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan and Karen Mills, head of the Small Business Administration. The departments will play key roles in providing housing aid and rebuilding funds for farms and businesses destroyed by the tornadoes.

“There’s been a lot of media attention on the cities hit, but there are a lot of small towns that have been hit and a lot of agricultural impact,” Fugate said aboard an Air Force jet en route to Birmingham. “So we’re starting the process of getting our teams in and getting people processed to get federal assistance.”

USDA farm programs are providing assistance to farmers affected by the storms, according to the White House. Its Natural Resources Conversation Service has already provided $6 million in aid to the 10 states affected by April’s storms and flooding.

HUD officials are joining FEMA and state officials in determining how much temporary housing may be needed and finding available apartments and other rental units to begin housing survivors. 

With so many properties damaged or leveled, “This is going to be a big housing mission and what we don’t know yet is will we have enough rental properties for everybody in the area,” Fugate said.

Gail McGovern, president of the American Red Cross, is also traveling Sunday with the administration officials. The Red Cross has 1,400 volunteers and 92 emergency response vehicles across the South, with more than half in Alabama. Red Cross volunteers have served more than 300,000 meals and snacks to survivors and are also providing mental health counseling and staffing shelters.

The tornado outbreak has prompted the largest U.S. disaster response from the Red Cross so far this year, said McGovern, who flew back from inspecting Red Cross efforts on earthquake-ravaged Japan to take the tour.