WEST LIBERTY, Ky. — Across the South and Midwest, survivors emerged Saturday to find blue sky and splinters where homes once stood, cars flung into buildings and communications crippled after dozens of tornadoes chainsawed through a region of millions, leveling small towns along the way.
At least 38 people were killed in five states, but a 2-year-old girl was somehow found alive and alone in a field near her Indiana home. Her family did not survive. A couple that fled their home for the safety of a restaurant basement made it, even after the storms threw a school bus into their makeshift shelter.
Saturday was a day filled with such stories, told as emergency officials trudged with search dogs past knocked-down cellphone towers and ruined homes looking for survivors in rural Kentucky and Indiana, marking searched roads and homes with orange paint. President Barack Obama offered federal assistance, and Ohio Gov. John Kasich declared an emergency Saturday.
The worst damage appeared centered in the small towns of southern Indiana and eastern Kentucky’s Appalachian foothills. No building was untouched and few were recognizable in West Liberty, Ky., about 90 miles from Lexington, where two white police cruisers were picked up and tossed into City Hall.
“It looks like a bomb was dropped on that town,” Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear said after touring the damage.
In East Bernstadt, two hours to the southwest, Carol Rhodes clutched four VHS tapes she’d found in debris of her former home as she sobbed under a bright sun Saturday.
“It was like whoo, that was it,” said Rhodes, 63, who took refuge with four family members in a basement bedroom that she had just refinished for a grandchild.
“Honey, I felt the wind and I said, ‘Oh my God,’ and then it (the house) was gone. I looked up and I could see the sky.”
The spate of storms was the second in little more than 48 hours, after an earlier round killed 13 people in the Midwest and South, and the latest in a string of severe-weather episodes that have ravaged the American heartland in the past year.
Friday’s violent storms touched down in at least a dozen states from Georgia to Illinois, killing 19 people in Kentucky, 14 in Indiana, three in Ohio, and one each in Alabama and Georgia.
The National Weather Service said the four twisters to hit Kentucky were the worst in the region in 24 years. In Indiana, an EF-4 tornado — the second-highest on the Fujita scale that measures tornadic force — packing 175 mph winds hit the town of Henryville, and stayed on the ground for more than 50 miles.
The storms scarred the landscape over hundreds of miles, leaving behind a trail of shredded sheet metal, insulation, gutted churches, crunched-up cars and even a fire hydrant.
The trailer that was once the home of Viva Johnson’s mother was sitting in a graveyard on Saturday, covering the dead alongside downed trees and other debris. “You can’t even tell where the headstones are,” said Johnson, who lives in Pulaski County, Ky.
In Indiana, a toddler was found alone in a field near her family’s home after a tornado hit in New Pekin. Authorities learned Saturday she is the sole survivor of her immediate family, said Cis Gruebbel, a spokeswoman for Kosair Children’s Hospital in Louisville, Ky.
The girl’s mother, father, 2-month-old sister and 3-year-old brother all died Friday, Gruebbel said. She is in critical condition with extended family members at the hospital, and authorities are still trying to figure out how she ended up in the field.