190 Dead as Storms, Tornadoes Ravage South
BIRMINGHAM, Alabama (AFP) – The worst storms to slam southern US states in years flattened buildings and overturned vehicles, with intense tornados and floods leaving a trail of destruction and 190 people dead.
The severe weather killed 128 people in Alabama on Wednesday alone, authorities said, and President Barack Obama said Washington would be rushing assistance to the battered southeastern state.
States of emergency were declared in Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, Missouri, Tennessee and Oklahoma, and governors called out the National Guard to help with rescue and cleanup operations.
The National Weather Service (NWS) had preliminary reports of more than 300 tornados since storms began Friday, including more than 130 on Wednesday alone.
Alabama was especially badly hit, caught by two lines of storms and an evening tornado that tore through the city of Tuscaloosa, home to the University of Alabama.
Tuscaloosa Mayor Walter Maddox told CNN that the tornado had "obliterated blocks and blocks" of his city, leaving 36 people dead there.
"Infrastructure has been absolutely devastated," he said early Thursday.
"When you look at this path of destruction, likely five to seven miles (eight to 11 kilometers) long and half a mile to a mile wide, I don't know how anyone survived," Maddox said.
"There are parts of this city I don't recognize.... It is a dark hour for our city."
A tornado also struck the city of Birmingham and officials were still assessing the damage.
"This has been a very serious and deadly event that's affected our state, and it's not over yet," Alabama Governor Robert Brantley told reporters after the second string of storms.
Stunned Birmingham residents assessed the damage early Thursday, some counting their blessings to still be alive, others distraught over the loss of their loved ones or homes.
"There were two-by-fours (wooden beams) falling out of the sky," convenience store manager Jack Welch said, adding that "there were well over 30 homes destroyed" just behind his store in Birmingham.
Facilities manager John Filmore said he was grateful to be alive, as he walked up his front steps -- the only part of his home still intact after a tornado ripped it to its foundations.
Some personal property swept up by the killer twisters was found 50 miles (80 kilometers) away, as power was knocked out in communities across the south.
The Tuesday-Wednesday storms are believed to be the deadliest US natural disaster since Hurricane Katrina of 2005, and Accuweather.com said the tornados were the worst since 310 people were killed on April 3, 1974.
The NWS issued a rare "high-risk" warning of tornados, hail, flash flooding and dangerous lightning for parts of Alabama, Georgia and Mississippi.
It warned that severe weather could also strike 21 states from the Great Lakes down to the Gulf Coast and across to the Atlantic, and tornados were reported as far east as Virginia and Maryland.
In Mississippi the storm killed 32 people and caused damage in 50 of its 82 counties, according to Greg Flynn at the state's emergency management agency.
He said most of the deaths and damage were caused by tornados and high winds.
State officials reported 11 dead in Arkansas, 10 killed in Georgia, seven in Virginia, and another three killed in Missouri and Tennessee, with the overall toll likely to rise.
Storm victims across the region were trapped in homes, trailers and cars by falling trees. Hail the size of golf balls cracked windows.
Roads were washed out or rendered impassable by fallen trees and power lines across the region. Homes, schools and businesses were flattened, flooded and set on fire by lightning.
"Our citizens have endured days of consecutive severe storms and flooding," said Kentucky Governor Steve Beshear.
"We urge Kentuckians to remain on alert until this storm system finally passes."
Hundreds of people were evacuated from their homes in Missouri after levees failed to hold back swollen rivers.
"I'm just glad my family is safe," said Chris Pigg, who spent the night at a shelter with his wife and daughter and wasn't sure if he'd have a home to return to after the Black River breached the levee in Poplar Bluff, Missouri.
The death toll was set to rise as skies are not expected to clear until late Thursday or Friday, and there will be little time to mop up, as another major storm system is forecast to bring heavy rain and high winds on Saturday.
The storms come after a wet spring and a winter of heavy snowfall which left the ground saturated and rivers running high.
Officials were considering deliberately destroying levees in some areas to ease pressure on swollen rivers, some of which are so high that barges have become trapped under bridges.
As much as 18 inches (45 centimeters) of rain had fallen from Saturday through Tuesday night in some areas.
"It's producing major to record flooding in a lot of those river basins," said Jim Keeney, deputy chief of the weather service's central region.