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Dozens of tornadoes kill 280 in 6 Southern states, including 194 in Alabama, 5 in Va.
PLEASANT GROVE, Ala. (AP) — Dozens of massive tornadoes tore a town-flattening streak across the South, killing at least 280 people in six states and forcing rescuers to carry some survivors out on makeshift stretchers of splintered debris. Two of Alabama’s major cities were among the places devastated by the deadliest twister outbreak in nearly 40 years.
As day broke Thursday, people in hard-hit areas surveyed obliterated homes and debris-strewn streets. Some told of deadly winds whipping through within seconds of weather alerts broadcast during the storms Wednesday afternoon and evening
“It happened so fast it was unbelievable,” said Jerry Stewart, a 63-year-old retired firefighter who was picking through the remains of his son’s wrecked home in Pleasant Grove, a suburb of Birmingham. “They said the storm was in Tuscaloosa and it would be here in 15 minutes. And before I knew it, it was here.”
He and his wife, along with their daughter and two grandchildren, survived by hiding under their front porch. Friends down the street who did the same weren’t so lucky — Stewart said he pulled out the bodies of two neighbors whose home was ripped off its foundation.
Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley said his state had confirmed 194 deaths. There were 33 deaths in Mississippi, 33 in Tennessee, 14 in Georgia, five in Virginia and one in Kentucky. Hundreds if not thousands of people were injured — 600 in Tuscaloosa alone.
President Barack Obama said he would visit Alabama Friday to view damage and meet with the governor and families devastated by the storms. Obama has already expressed condolences by phone to Gov. Robert Bentley and approved his request for emergency federal assistance.
The National Weather Service’s Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Okla., said it received 137 tornado reports into Wednesday night. The storms forced authorities in some places into makeshift command posts after their headquarters lost power or were damaged, and an Alabama nuclear plant was using backup generators to cool units that were shut down.
Some of the worst damage was in Tuscaloosa, a city of more than 83,000 that is home to the University of Alabama. Neighborhoods there were leveled by a massive tornado caught on video by a tower-mounted news camera that barreled through late Wednesday afternoon.
“When I looked back, I just saw trees and stuff coming by,” said Mike Whitt, a resident at DCH Regional Medical Center who ran from the hospital’s parking deck when the wind started swirling and he heard a roar.
On Thursday morning, he walked through the neighborhood next to the hospital, home to a mix of students and townspeople, looking at dozens of homes without roofs. Household items were scattered on the ground — a drum, running shoes, insulation, towels, and a shampoo bottle. Streets were impassable, the pavement strewn with trees, pieces of houses and cars with their windows blown out.
Dr. David Hinson was working at the hospital when the tornado hit. He and his wife had to walk several blocks to get to their house, which was destroyed. Several houses down, he helped pull three students from the rubble. One was dead and two were badly injured. He and others used pieces of debris as makeshift stretchers to carry them to an ambulance.
“We just did the best we could to get them out and get them stabilized and get them to help,” he said. “I don’t know what happened to them.”
Back from an aerial tour Thursday morning, Tuscaloosa Mayor Walter Maddox said the tornado tore a streak of “utter destruction” through the city. There were at least 36 people dead in the city’s police jurisdiction, and searches continue for the missing.
“We have neighborhoods that have been basically removed from the map,” he said.
Because the city’s emergency management building was destroyed, authorities are using Bryant-Denny Stadium at the University of Alabama as a command post.
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