Thursday, February 7, 2008

LAFAYETTE, Tenn. (AP) — Residents in five Southern states tried to salvage what they could yesterday from homes reduced to piles of debris, a day after the deadliest cluster of tornadoes in nearly a decade tore through the region, snapping trees and crumpling homes. At least 55 persons are dead.

Rescue crews, some with the help of the National Guard, went door to door looking for more victims. Dozens of twisters were reported as the storms swept through Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi, Arkansas and Alabama.

Seavia Dixon, whose Atkins, Ark., home was shattered, stood yesterday morning in her yard, holding muddy baby pictures of her son, who is now a 20-year-old soldier in Iraq. Only a concrete slab remained of her home.

The family’s new white pickup truck was upside-down, about 150 yards from where it was parked before the storm. Another pickup truck that the family owned sat crumpled about 50 feet from the slab.

“You know, it’s just material things,” she said, her voice breaking. “We can replace them. We were just lucky to survive.”

In many places, the storms struck as Super Tuesday primaries were ending. As the extent of the damage quickly became clear, Democratic candidates Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama and Republican hopeful Mike Huckabee, a former Arkansas governor, paused in their victory speeches to remember the victims.

Twenty-six persons were killed in Tennessee, 13 in Arkansas, seven in Kentucky and four in Alabama, emergency officials said.

President Bush said he called the governors of Alabama, Arkansas, Kentucky, Mississippi and Tennessee and assured them that the administration is ready to help and to respond to any emergency requests. “Loss of life, loss of property — prayers can help and so can the government,” he said.

The system moved east to Alabama yesterday, bringing heavy rain and gusty wind, causing several injuries in counties northwest of Birmingham. The National Weather Service posted tornado watches for parts of southern Alabama, the Florida Panhandle and western Georgia, but the storms appeared to weaken as they approached the coast.

Northeast of Nashville, a fire erupted at a natural-gas pumping station. No deaths connected to the fire were reported.

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

Winter tornadoes are not uncommon. The peak tornado season is late winter through midsummer, but the storms can happen at any time of the year with the right conditions.

This batch was the nation’s worst in a 24-hour period since May 3, 1999, when about 50 people died in Oklahoma and Kansas. The death toll ranks among the top 15 from tornado outbreaks since 1950, said Greg Carbin, the warning coordination meteorologist at the center in Norman, Okla., just south of Oklahoma City.

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