- - Thursday, April 28, 2011

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. | On Wednesday morning, citizens of this oak-lined university town woke to warnings that a massive tornado outbreak was possible. Hours later, Tuscaloosa took the hardest hit in what experts are calling the worst single-day outbreak of killer tornadoes in U.S. history.

At least 280 people were killed — including 194 in Alabama and 32 in Tuscaloosa — after a swath of storms materialized with about 24 minutes notice out of the moist, unstable air across a six-state area stretching from Mississippi to Virginia.

The Tuscaloosa twister is likely to be classified an EF-5 monster with 200 mph winds, federal officials said, after slicing a 10-mile long swath through the heart of a metro area with more than 100,000 residents and the 30,000-student University of Alabama.

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“There is massive devastation out there,” said Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley, himself a Tuscaloosa native. “You cannot prepare against an EF-5.”

President Obama announced that he will visit Alabama on Friday to work with disaster-relief officials and visit affected families.

“I want every American who has been affected by this disaster to know that the federal government will do everything we can to help you recover, and we will stand with you as you rebuild,” Mr. Obama said.

Mr. Obama already declared much of the state a federal disaster area, clearing the way for emergency assistance. The governors of Mississippi, Georgia and Virginia all made emergency declarations in parts of their states.

Even major state death tolls — 33 in Mississippi, 33 in Tennessee, 14 in Georgia, five in Virginia and one in Kentucky — seemed dwarfed by the carnage in northern and western Alabama. Injury counts almost certainly will reach into the thousands; there were 600 in Tuscaloosa alone.

The intersection of 15th Street and McFarland Boulevard here had been dubbed one of the busiest four-way traffic stops in the Southeast. By Thursday morning, the junction was the focal point of pure destruction by a tornado so powerful that meteorologists call it “the Hand Of God.”

Hundreds of University of Alabama students, finding that not only school was off for the rest of the week, but also that next weeks final exams were canceled and commencement postponed to August, milled about on the streets and sidewalks Thursday, as they might for a block party or Mardi Gras, but with destruction and devastation taking the place of bars and revelry.

After plowing through the 15th Street/McFarland intersection, Rosedale Court and Alberta City took the full force of the storm — and rescue crews, along with a large convoy of Alabama National Guardsmen, were still sifting through devastated homes looking for survivors or casualties.

“It’s demolished,” Alberta City resident Brenda Gibson said of her home. “I am still in shock. I am like, ‘Pinch me, wake me up.’ This just can’t be true.”

The scent of leaking natural gas still permeated the air Thursday afternoon, and downed power lines snaked everywhere as police and Alabama state troopers struggled to protect the mile-wide scene from onlookers.

Many onlookers were snapping photos of the carnage, wondering how local landmarks, such as a Krispy Kreme doughnut shop, had seemingly evaporated in the middle of the huge wedge tornado that was captured by scores of amateur videographers armed with smartphones.

On every corner, the words “I’m OK” spoken to a loved one into a cellular phone — itself a luxury of sorts as service was largely gone — took on new meaning. Receipts and newspapers from Tuscaloosa have reportedly been found 100 miles away in Gadsden.

Bryant-Denny Stadium, along with the campus and the eight-story DCH Medical Center less than a mile away, were largely spared, allowing the football stadium to be used as an emergency center.

Some small towns in the region were destroyed. “We’ve lost everything. Let’s just say it like it is,” Jerry Mays, mayor of the tiny town of Phil Campbell, Ala., population about 1,000, told the Associated Press. The small community saw 26 people killed.

In Smithville, Miss., where 13 people died, a tornado tore apart the police station, City Hall, the post office, an industrial park and the town’s main grocery store. “It’s like the town is just gone,” a weeping Jessica Monaghan told reporters as she held her 9-month-old son.

Dave Imy, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service, said the number of deaths was the most in a tornado outbreak since 1974, when 315 people died. Alabama Power officials said that more than 1 million were without power throughout the state, more than was lost during Hurricane Katrina.

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