TUSCALOOSA, Ala. (AP) – Dozens of tornadoes spawned by a powerful storm system wiped out entire towns across a wide swath of the South, killing at least 200 people in the deadliest outbreak in nearly 40 years, and officials said Thursday they expected the death toll to rise.
Alabama’s state emergency management agency said it had confirmed 131 deaths, while there were 32 in Mississippi, 15 in Tennessee, 13 in Georgia, eight in Virginia and one in Kentucky.
The National Weather Service’s Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Okla., said it received 137 tornado reports around the regions into Wednesday night.
“We were in the bathroom holding on to each other and holding on to dear life,” said Samantha Nail, who lives in a blue-collar subdivision in the Birmingham suburb of Pleasant Grove where the storm slammed heavy pickup trucks into ditches and obliterated tidy brick houses, leaving behind a mess of mattresses, electronics and children’s toys scattered across a grassy plain where dozens used to live. “If it wasn’t for our concrete walls, our home would be gone like the rest of them.”
Dave Imy, a meteorologist with the prediction service, said the number of deaths was the most in a tornado outbreak since 1974, when 315 people died.
In Alabama, where as many as a million people were without power, Gov. Robert Bentley said 2,000 national guard troops had been activated and were helping to search devastated areas for people still missing. He said the National Weather Service and forecasters did a good job of alerting people, but there is only so much that can be done to deal with tornadoes a mile wide.
“You cannot prepare against an F5,” the most powerful category on a scale for measuring wind intensity, he said.
One of the hardest-hit areas was Tuscaloosa, a city of more than 83,000 and home to the University of Alabama. The city’s police and other emergency services were devastated, the mayor said, and at least 15 people were killed.
A massive tornado, caught on video by a news camera on a tower, barreled through the city late Wednesday afternoon, leveling it.
By nightfall, the city was dark. Roads were impassable. Signs were blown down in front of restaurants, businesses were unrecognizable and sirens wailed off and on. Debris littered the streets and sidewalks.
College students in a commercial district near campus used flashlights to check out the damage.
At Stephanie’s Flowers, owner Bronson Englebert used the headlights from two delivery vans to see what valuables he could remove. The storm blew out the front of his store, pulled down the ceiling and shattered the windows, leaving only the curtains flapping in the breeze.
“It even blew out the back wall, and I’ve got bricks on top of two delivery vans now,” Englebert said.
A group of students stopped to help Englebert, carrying out items like computers and printers and putting them in his van.
The storm system spread destruction from Texas to New York, where dozens of roads were flooded or washed out.
The governors in Alabama, Mississippi and Georgia each issued emergency declarations for parts of their states.
President Barack Obama said he had spoken with Bentley and approved his request for emergency federal assistance.
“Our hearts go out to all those who have been affected by this devastation, and we commend the heroic efforts of those who have been working tirelessly to respond to this disaster,” Obama said in a statement.
Around Tuscaloosa, traffic was snarled by downed trees and power lines, and some drivers abandoned their cars in medians.
“What we faced today was massive damage on a scale we have not seen in Tuscaloosa in quite some time,” Mayor Walter Maddox said.
University officials said there didn’t appear to be significant damage on campus, and dozens of students and locals were staying at a 125-bed shelter in the campus recreation center.
The Browns Ferry nuclear power plant about 30 miles west of Huntsville lost offsite power. The Tennessee Valley Authority-owned plant had to use seven diesel generators to power the plant’s three units. The safety systems operated as needed and the emergency event was classified as the lowest of four levels, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission said.
In Huntsville, meteorologists found themselves in the path of severe storms and had to take shelter in a reinforced steel room, turning over monitoring duties to a sister office in Jackson, Miss. Meteorologists saw multiple wall clouds, which sometimes spawn tornadoes, and decided to take cover, but the building wasn’t damaged.
“We have to take shelter just like the rest of the people,” said meteorologist Chelly Amin, who wasn’t at the office at the time but spoke with colleagues about the situation.
In Kemper County, Miss., in the east-central part of the state, sisters Florrie Green and Maxine McDonald, and their sister-in-law Johnnie Green, all died in a mobile home that was destroyed by a storm.
“They were thrown into those pines over there,” Mary Green, Johnnie Green’s daughter-in-law, said, pointing to a wooded area. “They had to go look for their bodies.”
In Choctaw County, Miss., a Louisiana police officer was killed Wednesday morning when a towering sweetgum tree fell onto his tent as he shielded his young daughter with his body, said Kim Korthuis, a supervisory ranger with the National Park Service. The girl wasn’t hurt.
The 9-year-old girl was brought to a motor home about 100 feet away where campsite volunteer Greg Maier was staying with his wife. He went back to check on the father and found him dead.
In a neighborhood south of Birmingham, Austin Ransdell and a friend had to hike out after the house where he was living was crushed by four trees. No one was hurt.
As he walked away from the wreckage, trees and power lines crisscrossed residential streets, and police cars and utility trucks blocked a main highway.
“The house was destroyed. We couldn’t stay in it. Water pipes broke; it was flooding the basement,” he said. “We had people coming in telling us another storm was coming in about four or five hours, so we just packed up.”
Not far away, Craig Branch was stunned by the damage.
“Every street to get into our general subdivision was blocked off,” he said. “Power lines are down; trees are all over the road. I’ve never seen anything like that before.”
The storms came on the heels of another system that killed 10 people in Arkansas and one in Mississippi earlier this week.
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