Reporting from Tuscaloosa, Ala., and Los Angeles — Officials on Thursday stepped up emergency relief efforts after the fiercest band of tornadoes in decades tore a gaping wound through Alabama and at least five other Southern states, causing hundreds of deaths and a wide band of destruction.
"This may be the worst natural disaster in Alabama's history," Gov. Robert Bentley told reporters during a day when his state's death toll began in the dozens and quickly rose to at least 194. With the loss of life reported in Mississippi, Tennessee, Georgia, Virginia and Kentucky, the toll stood at about 280 by mid-afternoon.
"We do expect that number to rise," Bentley said at a morning news conference where he and other officials were careful not to predict a final toll. "We're sure it will."
PHOTO GALLERY: Tornadoes cut path of widespread devastation
Craig Fugate, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, pledged aid to the region where each state was handling its own search and rescue efforts. Fugate traveled to Alabama in the afternoon and his boss, President Obama will visit the state on Friday to meet with officials and victims, the White House said.
Speaking at the White House before he announced the details of his new national security team, Obama acknowledged the storms, which he called "heartbreaking, especially in Alabama."
"In a matter of hours these deadly tornadoes, some the worst that we've seen in decades, took mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, friends and neighbors even entire communities," Obama said.
"We can't control when or where a terrible storm will strike, but we can control how we respond to it," the president said. "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."
Obama said he has talked with various governors to tell them the government "was ready to help in any possible way."
Obama declared a state of emergency in Alabama, clearing the way for federal aid. Meanwhile, 1,500 National Guard troops rushed to the scenes of destruction. Firefighters, police and paramedics, probed piles of debris as dogs sniffed for the scent of survivors. The number of injured was in the hundreds and no one had an accurate count of the missing in a swath of damage that was more than 60 miles long and up to half of a mile wide.
It was too soon to begin computing the dollars and cents of the damage, but the disaster will likely take weeks and months to repair, officials estimated. Meanwhile, water, clothes, electricity and shelter were the immediate concerns.
Bentley said that between half a million and 1 million people in Alabama were without electricity and that there were numerous injuries, especially in Tuscaloosa, which seems to be among the hardest-hit areas in the state. A nuclear power plant was shut down in Alabama but officials said there was no danger of radiation leakage.
Bentley said that he had relatives in Tuscaloosa who had survived the storm's onslaught.
"The family came through OK," he told reporters, "but I'm concerned with everyone's family."
After a tour of the damage in his state, the governor landed in the afternoon in Tuscaloosa, the hardest-hit city. It was an emotional arrival because Bentley said he considered the city his home.
"When I fly over this, it is difficult," Bentley said at a televised news conference. 'It is hard to separate myself emotionally because I am governor of the whole state," he said. But "this is my home."
He praised those who were helping with the rescue, describing the effort as "neighbors helping neighbors. Everyone has pitched in across the state."
"We're going to get things under control," Bentley said. "We're going to get through this because the people of Alabama are resilient. They care about each other and we're going to get through this and come out better on the other side."
The extent of the current toll was difficult to confirm, and officials were careful to avoid citing a specific number while rescue efforts were underway in individual states. But so far, Mississippi officials reported 33 dead, Tennessee raised its report to 33, Georgia reported 13, Virginia said it had five deaths and Kentucky reported at least one death.
The latest storm began Wednesday afternoon. The National Weather Service's Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Okla., said it received 137 reports of tornadoes.
Bentley said Alabama residents were prepared for the storms, but the violent weather moved into the region too quickly and forcefully to make evacuation effective.
"It was just the force of the storm," the governor told reporters. "It's hard to move that many people."
Officials estimate the intensity of the storm at F4 or F5, meaning winds in excess of 150 mph and as deadly as 200 mph. Whole neighborhoods were flattened.