The Heat Is Online

Tornadoes Kill 55 People in southern US

Toll of Deadly Tornadoes in South Climbs Past 50

The New York Times, Feb. 7, 2008

 

ATKINS, Ark.  Residents in five Southern states rose Wednesday to widespread clusters of destruction caused by an unusually ferocious winter tornado system. At least 55 people were killed, and scores more were injured.

 

Many had spent a harrowing Tuesday night punctuated by breaking glass and warning sirens as the tornadoes tossed trailer homes into the air, collapsed the roof of a Sears store in Memphis, whittled away half a Caterpillar plant near Oxford, Miss., and shredded dorms at Union University in Jackson, Tenn., where crews rescued nine students trapped in the rubble.

 

Arkansas and Tennessee were the hardest hit, with Arkansas reporting 13 dead and Tennessee 31.

 

Here in Atkins, 50 miles northwest of Little Rock, a middle-age couple and their 11-year-old daughter were killed when their house was wiped out by a direct hit, and in northwestern Alabama the bodies of another family of three were found 50 yards from the foundation of their ruined home.

 

In Macon County, Tenn., a 74-year-old man whose trailer was destroyed was killed as his family waited for an ambulance to navigate debris-strewn roads.

 

Thirty-five injuries were reported in Gassville, a small community in Baxter County, Ark., that was almost totally leveled by the storm.

The wrath of God is the only way I can describe it, Gov. Phil Bredesen of Tennessee said after a helicopter flight to survey the damage. Im used to seeing roofs off houses, houses blown over.

 

These houses were down to their foundations, stripped clean.

The governor said 1,000 houses in Tennessee were destroyed. President Bush announced that he would visit the state on Friday.

 

Much of the havoc was wreaked by rare long-track tornadoes, which stay on the ground for distances of 30 to 50 miles. One tornado in Arkansas seems to have burned a path through five counties, said Renee Preslar, the public education coordinator for the Arkansas Division of Emergency Management.

 

Normally tornadoes touch down and theyre on the ground for 20 minutes and they pop back up, Ms. Preslar said. Theres no signs yet of this having ever come off the ground.

 

On Wednesday, the storm, a bit tamer, moved toward the East Coast.

 

Tornado experts said there was no evidence that the deadly storms were related to global warming or anything other than the clash of contrasting cold and warm air masses that usually precedes such events.

 

Harold Brooks, a meteorologist at the National Severe Storms Laboratory in Norman, Okla., said there had been a long history of midwinter storms exacting a deadly toll. The most lethal February was in 1971, when tornadoes ripped across Louisiana and Mississippi. According to the laboratorys archives, 134 people died in tornadoes in February that year.

 

The number of deaths is as much a function of luck and location as the number of tornadoes, Dr. Brooks added. He said the biggest midwinter outbreak of tornadoes on record, 134 on Jan. 21 and 22, 1999, left nine dead.

 

In Jackson, Matt Taylor, a junior at Union University, was scouring the campus Wednesday for his Jeep after a close call that left him with staples in his scalp and bandages on his leg.

 

On Tuesday night, Mr. Taylor hunkered down in Waters Commons, a residence hall, when the sirens went off, but when a door blew open he was sucked outside, bringing with him a gum-ball machine he had grabbed hold of. By the time I got back in, it exploded, he said of the building.

 

Although 80 percent of the residential section of the campus was demolished or severely damaged, there were no fatalities, for which officials credited the colleges disaster plan. Across the region, residents said they owed their lives to warning systems.

 

Ive lived in Champaign, Ill., and in southern Mississippi, and neither place had a decent early warning system like we do here in Moulton, said Elaina Peyton in Moulton, the county seat of Lawrence County, Ala. We heard the sirens last night at about 2 a.m., and so our daughter knew to come downstairs and we knew that something was happening. The television went out around 3:30 or so, and we just followed the news on the radio.

 

The destruction began in Arkansas late Tuesday afternoon. A tornado residents described as a massive black wall of wind and debris tore a six-mile swath through Atkins, a rural, agricultural town of about 3,300, killing four people and injuring at least eight others.

 

Maj. Dillard W. Bradley, chief deputy of the Pope County Sheriffs department, said 60 to 80 buildings were completely blown away.

Several one-story, wooden houses along Highway 64, one of the towns main streets, were torn off their foundations and reduced to rubble. The few trees left standing looked as if they had been run though a wood chipper, limbs whittled to bare spikes, trunks stripped of bark.

 

Cyerice Martin, 41, gingerly picked her way through the pile of debris that was all that remained of her twin sisters house. The neighbors saw it hit this house, and they said it just exploded, Ms. Martin said.

 

Next door, Pat Veverka, a truck driver, sifted through the remains of his one-story, wooden house. I dont know where to start, Mr. Veverka said, his eyes filling. I know it sounds like a cliché but you just never think, he paused, biting his lip. It took me 10 years to have something.

 

His wife, Kim, marveled over a fragile glass Christmas ornament, the only one of a collection that had survived intact. Were looking for little miracles, she said. We keep finding them.

 

Ms. Veverkas daughter cooed in surprise at the ornament, taking it in her gloved hands to examine it. As she turned it over, it fell, smashing to bits.

 

From Arkansas, the storms moved east, spewing rain and hail as it swept parts of northern Mississippi and Alabama, virtually all of Tennessee and parts of Kentucky. Four people died in Alabama, and seven in Kentucky.

 

Were talking about winds in excess of 150 miles an hour, said Greg Carbin, a meteorologist at the Storm Prediction Center of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The center recorded 73 reports of tornadoes but has not determined how many were duplicates, he said.

 

In Macon County, near the Kentucky state line, boats and cars were strewn like jackstraws and neat brick homes were reduced to rubble. It went from one county line to the other, said Randall Kirby, director of emergency services for the county.

 

Ray Story said the twister left no trace of the trailer occupied by his 74-year-old uncle. The family found him, nearly naked, on the ground nearby. They called 911 and waited, in vain, for help. He lived a pretty good while after we found him, maybe an hour and a half to two hours, Mr. Story said. He was tore up pretty bad.

 

Helen Hesson said she took shelter in the bathtub when the tornado struck, until the bathroom window blew out. She moved to a closet, but even then the wind seemed to be trying to pry her out. I really thought I was gone, she said. I couldnt get the door closed. It was just scooping in right after me. It seemed like it lasted two hours.

 

 

Tornadoes rip through South, killing 47

 

The Associated Press, Feb. 6, 2008

 

LAFAYETTE, Tenn. - Crews went door-to-door Wednesday searching debris for more victims of deadly tornadoes that ripped the roof off a shopping mall, pummeled mobile homes and blew apart warehouses as they tore across five states. At least 47 people were killed throughout the South.

 

The victims included 24 people in Tennessee, 13 in Arkansas, seven in Kentucky and three in Alabama, emergency officials said. Among those killed were Arkansas parents who died with their 11-year-old in Atkins, about 60 miles northwest of Little Rock. Hundreds more were

injured.

 

The family died from trauma when their home "took a direct hit" from the storm, Pope County Coroner Leonard Krout said.

"Neighbors and friends who were there said, 'There used to be a home there,'" Krout said.

 

Ray Story tried to get his 70-year-old brother, Bill Clark, to a hospital after the storms leveled his mobile home in Macon County, about 60 miles northeast of Nashville. He died as Story and his wife tried to navigate debris-strewn roads in their pickup truck, they said.

 

"He never had a chance," Nova Story said. "I looked him right in the eye and he died right there in front of me."

 

The twisters, which also slammed Mississippi, were part of a rare spasm of winter weather that raged across the nation's midsection at the end of the Super Tuesday primaries in several states. As the extent of the damage quickly became clear, candidates including Hillary Rodham Clinton, Barack Obama and Mike Huckabee paused in their victory speeches to remember the victims.

 

Before dawn Wednesday, the system moved on to Alabama, bringing heavy rains and gusty winds, causing several injuries in counties northwest of Birmingham. Three people were killed when a reported twister struck Aldridge Grove, in the northern part of the state near Decatur, said Brenda Morgan, deputy emergency management director in Lawrence County.

 

An apparent tornado damaged eight homes in Walker County, Ala., and a pregnant woman suffered a broken arm when a trailer home was tossed by the winds, said county emergency management director Johnny Burnette.

 

"I was there before daylight and it looked like a war zone," he said.

Northeast of Nashville, a spectacular fire erupted at a natural gas pumping station northeast of Nashville that authorities said could have been damaged by the storms. An undetermined number of people were reported dead.

 

Power was knocked out and the local hospital was running on generators. Only the emergency room had lights on.

 

Eight students were trapped in a battered dormitory at Union University in Jackson, Tenn., until they were finally freed. Tornadoes had hit the campus in the past, and students knew the drill when they heard sirens, said Union University President David S. Dockery.

At least two dormitories were destroyed. Dockery told NBC's "Today" that the drills and planning "saved those lives."

 

He said about 51 students were taken to the hospital and nine stayed through the night, but added "there are positive days ahead for them."

 

Well after nightfall Tuesday, would-be rescuers went through shattered homes in Atkins, a town of 3,000 near the Arkansas River. Around them, power lines snaked along streets and a deep-orange pickup truck rested on its side. A navy blue Mustang with a demolished front end was marked with spray paint to show it had been searched.

 

Outside one damaged home, horses whinnied in the darkness, looking up only when a flashlight reached their eyes. A ranch home stood unscathed across the street from a concrete slab that had supported the house where the family of three died.

 

Gov. Mike Beebe planned to tour Atkins on Wednesday.

 

In Memphis, high winds collapsed the roof of a Sears store at a mall. Debris that included bricks and air conditioning units was scattered on the parking lot, where about two dozen vehicles were damaged.

 

A few people north of the mall took shelter under a bridge and were washed away, but they were pulled out of the Wolf River with only scrapes, said Steve Cole of the Memphis Police Department.

 

In Mississippi, Desoto County Sheriff's Department Cmdr. Steve Atkinson said a twister shredded warehouses in an industrial park in the city of Southaven, just south of Memphis.

 

"It ripped the warehouses apart. The best way to describe it is it looks like a bomb went off," Atkinson said.

 

At the W.J. Matthews Civic Center in Atkins, a shelter was empty except for American Red Cross volunteers and a single touch-screen voting machine. The civic center had hosted an election precinct earlier Tuesday. Traffic was snarled on nearby Interstate 40, with tractor-trailers on their sides.

 

Officials do not know what started a fire at the Columbia Gulf Natural Gas pumping station near Green Grove, about 40 miles from Nashville. The blaze could be seen in the night sky for miles around, with flames shooting "400, 500 feet in the air," said Tennessee Emergency Management spokesman Donnie Smith.

 

The couple killed with their adult daughter were in their mobile home near Greenville in western Kentucky when a tornado went through their trailer park.

 

On Jan. 8, tornadoes were reported in Arkansas, Illinois, Missouri, Oklahoma and Wisconsin. Two died in the Missouri storms.

 

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.