US Tornadoes Kill 337 People
Twister deaths now at 318, worst since 1932
'Never seen devastation like this,' Obama says; body bag shortage in one Ala. town
Msnbc.com news services, April 28, 2011
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — The recovery of more bodies pushed the death toll in Wednesday night's twisters to 318, making the outbreak the deadliest in the U.S. since 1932. The news came shortly after President Barack Obama toured some of the destroyed neighborhoods and met with devastated residents.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Authorities say the fatality toll from the devastating tornadoes across the South has climbed to 337, making it the second-deadliest day for a twister outbreak in U.S. history.
The largest death toll ever was on March 18, 1925, when 747 people were killed in storms that raged through Missouri, Illinois and Indiana.
Alabama was in the path of the most destruction this time with at least 246 deaths. Authorities on Saturday raised the total number of confirmed dead in several states to 337.
"I've never seen devastation like this," Obama said after touring the Tuscaloosa area. "It is heartbreaking."
Tuscaloosa saw at least 42 deaths. "We are bringing in the cadaver dogs today," said Heather McCollum, an assistant to Tuscaloosa's mayor.
Visible from Air Force One as Obama neared Tuscaloosa: a wide, angry scar across the land where the tornado had gouged its path.
And as the president moved by motorcade through communities and business districts, suddenly the devastation was everywhere: flattened buildings, snapped trees and heaps of rubble, twisted metal and overturned cars as far as the eye could see.
First lady Michelle Obama was at the president's side as he offered condolences.
Late Thursday, the president signed a disaster declaration for Alabama to provide federal aid to those who seek it.
The president's visit drew a muted response from Tuscaloosa resident Derek Harris, who was pushing a grocery buggy down a street where virtually every home was heavily damaged. The 47-year-old and his wife hoped to use the cart to salvage a few belongings from his home.
"Hopefully he'll give us some money to start over," Harris said of Obama. "Is FEMA here? The only place I'm hearing anything is at the Red Cross center."
Some were more upbeat about the president's visit, including 21-year-old Turner Woods, who watched Obama's motorcade pass on its way to tour damaged areas. "It's just really special having the president come here," she said. "It will bring more attention to this disaster and help get more help here."
Body bag shortage in one town
The situation was dire about 90 miles to the north in the demolished town of Hackleburg, Ala., where officials were keeping bodies in a refrigerated truck amid a body bag shortage. At least 27 are dead there, and searches for the missing continue.
The only grocery store, the fire and police departments and the school are destroyed. There's no power, communications, water or other services. Fire Chief Steve Hood said he desperately wants scores of flashlights because he doesn't want people using candles due to the fire hazard.
"We don't have water to put out any fires," he said.
People have looted a demolished Wrangler jeans plant, and authorities locked up drugs from a destroyed pharmacy in a bank vault, said Stanley Webb, chief agent in the county's drug task force.
"If people steal, we are not playing around. They will go to jail," he said.
About three hours to the west, parts of Rainsville were also flattened. At Rainsville Funeral Home, Lisa Chandler and her husband have been working 6 a.m. to midnight to arrange services and prepare bodies.
The work is tough because they know most of the victims. But the couple keeps at it — they have five visitations planned for Friday night.
"How am I handling it?" Lisa Chandler said. "I cry a little and I pray a lot."
Just outside of town, residents picked through their scattered belongings on a road, with people in cars stopping to offer bread, water and crackers. An AM radio station transmitted offers of help. One store was giving away air mattresses. An Italian restaurant was serving free hot meals. A glass shop was offering to replace shattered windows for free.
Firefighter Jamie Armstrong blinked back tears as he recalled finding a 5-year-old girl lifeless in a field near Rainsville, far from any house. Her brother was alive, but Armstrong wasn't sure if he was going to make it.
Despite the devastation, he said the storm had strengthened his belief in God.
"The truth is, God could take any one of us right now. But he spared me and you," he said.
With at least 228 deaths, Alabama bore the brunt of the devastation. Other state death tolls so far: Tennessee (34), Mississippi (33), Georgia (15), Virginia (5), Louisiana (2), and Kentucky (1). Some 1,700 people were injured in Alabama alone.
The deadliest outbreak prior to this week's was in March 1932, when 332 people died. Most of those dead were also in Alabama. With the increase Friday, the death toll surpassed that of a 1974 outbreak, when 310 people died.
The powerful tornadoes — more than 160 reported in total — combined with storms to cut a swath of destruction heading west to east. It was the worst U.S. natural disaster since Hurricane Katrina in 2005, which killed up to 1,800 people.
The high death toll seems surprising in the era of Doppler radar and precise satellite forecasts. But the storms were just too wide and too powerful.
"These were the most intense super-cell thunderstorms that I think anybody who was out there forecasting has ever seen," said meteorologist Greg Carbin at the National Weather Service's Storm Prediction Center.
"If you experienced a direct hit from one of these, you'd have to be in a reinforced room, storm shelter or underground" to survive, Carbin said.
As many as a million homes and businesses there were without power, and 2,000 National Guard troops were activated to help in Alabama. The governors of Mississippi and Georgia also issued emergency declarations for parts of their states.
In Birmingham, Police Chief A.C. Roper said rescue workers sifted through rubble "hand to hand" on Thursday to pull people from destroyed homes.
"We even rescued two babies, one that was trapped in a crib when the house fell down on top of the baby," Roper said on PBS NewsHour.
The storms seemed to hone in on populated areas by hugging the interstate highways and obliterating neighborhoods and even entire towns from Tuscaloosa to Bristol, Va.
Concord, a small town outside Birmingham, was so devastated that authorities closed it down to keep out rubberneckers.
Randy Guyton's family, which lived in a large home at the base of a hill, rushed to the basement garage, piled into his pickup truck and listened to the roar as the twister devoured the house in seconds. Afterward, they saw outside through the shards of their home and scrambled out.
"The whole house caved in on top of that car," he said. "Other than my boy screaming to the Lord to save us, being in that car is what saved us."
Given the apparent destruction, insurance experts were wary of estimating damage costs, but believed they would run into the billions of dollars.
Some of the worst damage was in Tuscaloosa, a city of more than 83,000 that is home to the University of Alabama.
Police used bullhorns to tell people not to cross the tape to a neighborhood they were searching. On the other side, people were walking over glass, through pools of water, endless piles of debris and smashed cars. The city imposed a 10 p.m. curfew for Thursday and an 8 p.m. limit for Friday.
In Phil Campbell, a town of 1,000 in northwest Alabama where 26 people died, the grocery store, gas stations and medical clinic were destroyed by a tornado that Mayor Jerry Mays estimated was a half-mile wide and traveled some 20 miles.
"We've lost everything. Let's just say it like it is," Mays said. "I'm afraid we might have some suicides because of this."
Officials said at least 13 died in Smithville, Miss., where devastating winds ripped open the police station, post office, city hall and an industrial park with several furniture factories. Pieces of tin were twined high around the legs of a blue water tower, and the Piggly Wiggly grocery store was gutted.
At Smithville Cemetery, even the dead were not spared: Tombstones dating to the 1800s, including some of Civil War soldiers, lay broken on the ground. Brothers Kenny and Paul Long dragged their youngest brother's headstone back to its proper place.
At least eight people were killed in Georgia's Catoosa County, including in Ringgold, where a suspected tornado flattened about a dozen buildings.
"It happened so fast I couldn't think at all," said Tom Rose, an Illinois truck driver whose vehicle was blown off the road at I-75 North in Ringgold, near the Tennessee line.
Lisa Rice, owner of S&L Tans in nearby Trenton, survived by climbing into a tanning bed with her two daughters: Stormy, 19, and Sky, 21.
"We got in it and closed it on top of us," Rice said. "Sky said, 'We're going to die.' But, I said, 'No, just pray. Just pray, just pray, just pray.'"
For 30 seconds, wind rushed around the bed and debris flew as wind tore off the roof.
"Then it just stopped. It got real quiet. We waited a few minutes and then opened up the bed and we saw daylight," she said.
The difference between life and death was hard to fathom. Four people died in Bledsoe County, Tenn., but Mayor Bobby Collier also had good news to report after a twister swept through.
"There was a modular home that was actually picked up and thrown across the road," Collier said. "The family was in it. It was totally destroyed."
And the family?
"They were OK."
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.
After Storms Kill Hundreds, South Tries to Regroup
The New York Times, April 29, 2011
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — As President Obama prepared to visit Alabama on Friday, the epicenter of a region that endured storms that killed hundreds across the South, people from Texas to Virginia searched through rubble for survivors and tried to reclaim their own lives.
At least 291 people across six states died in the storms, with more than half — 204 people — in Alabama. This college town, the home of the University of Alabama, has in some places been shorn to the slab, and accounts for at least 36 of those deaths.
Thousands have been injured, and untold more have been left homeless, hauling their belongings in garbage bags or rooting through disgorged piles of wood and siding to find anything salvageable.
By Friday morning, gasoline and other supplies were getting difficult to find in parts of Alabama. County emergency directors cautioned people to not show up to help.
“They don’t yet have an infrastructure to handle donations or volunteers,” Phyllis Little, the Coleman County emergency management director, told a Birmingham television station. “Right now, we’re not in a ready mode to receive donations or volunteers yet. We are working toward that. Hopefully by tomorrow or Sunday, I’ll have better answers.”
In Pleasant Grove, Ala., a community near Birmingham where nine people died, a church was taking food donations — hamburgers, corn dogs, bottled water — and serving as a makeshift kitchen for hundreds of people who are now homeless. In other areas, the Red Cross is providing meals at shelters.
While Alabama was hit the hardest, the storm spared few states across the South. Thirty-three people were reported dead in Tennessee, 33 in Mississippi, 15 in Georgia, 5 in Virginia and one in Kentucky, according to The Associated Press. With search and rescue crews still climbing through debris and making their way down tree-strewn country roads, the toll is expected to rise.
“History tells me estimating deaths is a bad business,” said W. Craig Fugate, the Federal Emergency Management Agency administrator, in a conference call with reporters.
Cries could be heard into the night here in Tuscaloosa on Wednesday, but on Thursday hope was dwindling. Mayor Walt Maddox said that the search and rescue operation would go for 24 to 48 more hours, before the response pivoted its focus to recovery.
“They’re looking for five kids in this rubble here,” said Lathesia Jackson-Gibson, 33, a nurse, pointing to the incoherent heap of planks and household appliances sitting next to the muddled guts of her own house. “They’re mostly small kids.”
President Obama announced that he was coming to Alabama on Friday afternoon, saying in a statement that the federal government had pledged its assistance.
Gov. Robert Bentley toured the state by helicopter along with federal officials, tracking a vast scar that stretched from Birmingham to his hometown, Tuscaloosa. He declared Alabama “a major, major disaster.”
“As we flew down from Birmingham, the track is all the way down, and then when you get in Tuscaloosa here it’s devastating,”
Governor Bentley said at an afternoon news conference, with an obliterated commercial strip as a backdrop.
An enormous response operation was under way across the South, with emergency officials working alongside churches, sororities and other volunteer groups. In Alabama, more than 2,000 National Guard troops have been deployed.
Across nine states, more than 1,680 people spent Wednesday in Red Cross shelters, said Attie Poirier, a spokeswoman with the organization. The last time the Red Cross had set up such an elaborate system of shelters was after Hurricane Katrina, a comparison made by even some of those who had known the experience firsthand.
“It reminds me of home so much,” said Eric Hamilton, 40, a former Louisianan, who was sitting on the sidewalk outside the Belk Activity Center, which was being used as a Red Cross shelter in south Tuscaloosa.
Mr. Hamilton lived in a poor area of Tuscaloosa called Alberta City, which residents now describe merely as “gone.” He wiped tears off his cheeks.
“I’ve never seen so many bodies,” Mr. Hamilton said. “Babies, women. So many bodies.”
Officials at the National Weather Service Storm Prediction Center said they had received 137 tornado reports on Wednesday, with 104 of them coming from Alabama and Mississippi. Over all, there have been 297 confirmed tornadoes this month, breaking a 36-year-old record.
Southerners, who have had to learn the drill all too well this month, watched with dread on Wednesday night as the shape-shifting storm system crept eastward across the weather map. Upon hearing the rumble of a tornado, or even the hysterical barking of a family dog, people crammed into closets, bathtubs and restaurant coolers, clutching their children and family photos.
Many of the lucky survivors found a completely different world when they opened their closet doors.
“We heard crashing,” said Steve Sikes, 48, who lives in a middle-class Tuscaloosa neighborhood called the Downs. “Then dirt and pine needles came under the door. We smelled pine.
“When you smell pine,” he said, gesturing, by way of a conclusion, toward a wooden wreck behind him, so mangled that it was hard to tell where tree ended and house began.
Some opened the closet to the open sky, where their roof had been, some yelled until other family members pulled the shelves and walls off them. Others never got out.
Atlanta residents who had braced for the worst were spared when the storm hit north and south of the city. Across Georgia, many schools in rural areas sustained so much damage they will close for the rest of the year.
In Mississippi, the carnage was worst in the piney hill country in the northeastern part of the state. Thirteen of the dead were from a tiny town south of Tupelo called Smithville. Most of the buildings in Smithville, which has a population of less than 800, were gone.
“It looks to be pretty much devastated,” said Brent Carr, a spokesman for the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency.
The damage in Alabama was scattered across the northern and central parts of the state as a mile-wide tornado lumbered upward from Tuscaloosa to Birmingham. More than 1,700 people have been examined or treated at local hospitals, according to officials at the Alabama Hospital Association.
The deaths were scattered around the state: six in the small town of Arab, 14 in urban Jefferson County.
More than a million people in Alabama, Mississippi and Tennessee were left without power, with much of the loss caused by severe damage to transmitters at the Browns Ferry Nuclear Plant west of Huntsville, Ala. The plant itself was not damaged, but the dozens of poles that carry electricity to local power companies were down.
“We have no place to send the power at this point,” said Scott Brooks, a spokesman for the Tennessee Valley Authority, which sells electricity to companies in seven states. “We’re not talking hours, we’re talking days.”
In Tuscaloosa, Governor Bentley, a Republican, made it clear that Alabama would need substantial federal assistance.
“We’re going to have to have help from the federal government in order to get through this in an expeditious way,” he said.
Mr. Fugate, the FEMA administrator, emphasized in a number of appearances that the agency’s job at this stage was to play “a support role” to the states in recovery efforts, not to lead them. “Everybody wants to know who’s in charge. I can tell you this. Alabama’s governor is in charge. We’re in support,” he said.
The University of Alabama campus here was mostly spared, said Robert E. Witt, the president, but about 70 students with no other place to stay spent the night in the recreation center on campus. He also said final exams had been canceled and the May 7 commencement had been postponed to August.
Along with the swath of destruction it cut through Tuscaloosa, the tornado smashed up the town’s capacity to recover. The headquarters of the county emergency management agency was badly damaged, as well as the city’s fleet of garbage trucks.
At Rosedale Court, a low-income housing project, large crowds of former residents walked aimlessly back and forth in front of the mangled buildings where they had woken up the day before. A door-to-door search was continuing.
Three women approached Willie Fort, the assistant director of the authority, and asked why the residents were just milling around the destruction and not moving on to shelters. Mr. Fort urged patience.
“When folks lose everything they just looking and holding on,” he said to the women. “Everything’s gone. Their cars are gone. Everything. These people ain’t got nothing.”
Campbell Robertson reported from Tuscaloosa, and Kim Severson from Atlanta. Kevin Sack contributed reporting from Tuscaloosa, and Robbie Brown from Birmingham, Ala.
Tornadoes and storms rip South, at least 259 dead
Reuters, April 28, 2011
Tornadoes and violent storms ripped through seven southern U.S. states, killing at least 259 people in the country's deadliest series of twisters in nearly four decades.
The clusters of powerful tornadoes -- more than 160 in total -- combined with storms to cut a swath of destruction heading from west to east over several days. In some areas, whole neighborhoods were flattened, cars flipped over and trees and power lines felled, leaving mounds of tangled wreckage.
At least 162 people died in Alabama, the worst-hit state which suffered "massive destruction of property," Governor Robert Bentley said on Thursday.
The mile-wide monster twister that on Wednesday tore through the town of Tuscaloosa, home to the University of Alabama, may have been the biggest ever to hit the state, meteorologist Josh Nagelberg said on the AccuWeather.com website.
Many people told tales of narrow misses. "I made it. I got in a closet, put a pillow over my face and held on for dear life because it started sucking me up," said Angela Smith of Tuscaloosa, whose neighbor was killed.
President Barack Obama will visit Alabama on Friday to view damage and meet the governor, the White House said.
In preliminary estimates, other state officials reported 32 killed in Mississippi, 30 in Tennessee, 11 in Arkansas, 14 in Georgia, eight in Virginia and two in Louisiana.
The Browns Ferry nuclear power plant in Alabama was expected to be shut for days, possibly weeks, as workers repaired damaged transmission lines.
But the backup systems worked as intended to prevent a partial meltdown like the nuclear disaster in Japan.
"The reactors will remain shut until we have restored the reliability of the transmission system," said Ray Golden, spokesman for the Tennessee Valley Authority, which owns the 3,274-megawatt plant.
Up to 1 million people in Alabama were left without power.
It is too early to estimate the financial cost of the storms, Alabama's state insurance department said.
Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Administrator Craig Fugate said it is too early for his agency to give a confirmed overall death toll and authorities are concentrating on rescue and recovery.
Some of the worst devastation occurred in Tuscaloosa, where at least 37 people were killed, including some students.
"It sounded like a chain-saw. You could hear the debris hitting things. All I have left is a few clothes and tools that were too heavy for the storm to pick up. It doesn't seem real," said student Steve Niven, 24.
"I can buy new things but you cannot replace the people. I feel sorry for those who lost loved ones," Niven told Reuters.
Shops, shopping malls, drug stores, gas stations and dry cleaners were all flattened in one section of Tuscaloosa, a town of around 95,000 in the west-central part of Alabama.
OBAMA ORDERS AID
Tornadoes are a regular feature of life in the U.S. South and Midwest, but they are rarely so devastating.
Obama declared a state of emergency for Alabama and ordered federal aid.
"Our hearts go out to all those who have been affected by this devastation and (we) stand ready to continue to help the people of Alabama," he said in a Twitter message on Thursday.
Governor Bentley also declared a state of emergency in Alabama and said he was deploying 2,000 National Guardsman. Governors in Arkansas, Mississippi and Tennessee also declared states of emergency.
Wednesday was the deadliest day of tornadoes in the United States since 310 people lost their lives on April 3, 1974, weather forecasters said.
"We have never experienced such a major weather event in our history," said the Tennessee Valley Authority, which operates the Browns Ferry nuclear plant and provides electricity to 9 million people in seven states.
"Everybody says it (a tornado) sounds like a train and I started to hear the train," Anthony Foote, a resident of Tuscaloosa whose house was badly damaged, told Reuters. "I ran and jumped into the tub and the house started shaking. Then glass started shattering."
The campus of the University of Alabama, home of the famous Crimson Tide football team, was not badly damaged but some students were killed off campus, Bentley said.
Dozens of tornadoes kill 194 in 5 Southern states
The Associated Press, April 28, 2011
PLEASANT GROVE, Ala. — Dozens of tornadoes spawned by a powerful storm system wiped out entire towns across a wide swath of the South, killing at least 194 people, and officials said Thursday they expect the death toll to rise.
Alabama's state emergency management agency said it had confirmed 128 deaths, while there were 32 in Mississippi, 15 in Tennessee, 11 in Georgia and eight in Virginia.
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."
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 Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley and approved his request for emergency federal assistance, including search and rescue assets. About 1,400 National Guard soldiers were being deployed around the state.
"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.
Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved