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Tornado destruction and deaths stun the South

Tornadoes killed hundreds — at least 210 in Alabama alone — and leveled entire communities. The death toll is expected to rise.

April 29, 2011|By Richard Fausset and Robin Abcarian, Los Angeles Times
  • Overnight tornadoes leave part of Pratt City, a suburb of Birmingham, Ala., in ruins.
Overnight tornadoes leave part of Pratt City, a suburb of Birmingham, Ala.,… (Marvin Gentry / Reuters )

Reporting from Tuscaloosa, Ala. — A historic tornado outbreak battered six Southern states, swooping like a deadly scythe from Mississippi to New York, killing hundreds, injuring many more, flattening neighborhoods and forcing the closure of a nuclear power plant in Alabama, the hardest-hit state.

Search and rescue teams combed through the matchstick remains of homes and businesses in several states Thursday looking for survivors or bodies as residents grappled with grief and the struggle for food, water and shelter. It is believed to be the deadliest U.S. tornado toll in 37 years.

The death count rose steadily throughout the day: at least 210 in Alabama, 34 in Tennessee, 32 in Mississippi, 14 in Georgia, 12 in Arkansas, five in Virginia and one in Kentucky.

Photo gallery: Swaths of the South in ruins

"We do expect that number to rise," Alabama Gov. Robert J. Bentley said. "This may be the worst natural disaster in Alabama's history."

President Obama declared a state of emergency in Alabama and announced he would visit the state Friday to meet with government officials and console victims. He signed a disaster declaration making federal aid available for those who apply for it.

The tornadoes began Wednesday afternoon when violent thunderstorms collided with warm air from the Gulf of Mexico, creating the massive twisters. By early evening, a monster cloud began to spin across Alabama.

As local evening newscasts showed live shots of the dark tornado spewing pieces of buildings and other debris, broadcasters urged viewers to take cover immediately. Their voices were filled with astonishment and concern. "Please, please take our advice and get to a safe place right now," said meteorologist Jason Simpson on ABC 33/40.

Parts of Tuscaloosa, a town of about 93,000 that is home to the University of Alabama, were unrecognizable at daybreak Thursday. Storm chasers captured the immense, gray funnel cloud on video, a terrifying column that seemed to fill the sky.

"The amount of damage that is seen is beyond a nightmare," Tuscaloosa Mayor Walter Maddox said after touring the city by air. The tornado, he said, wiped out a three- to four-mile long stretch of the town. The swath was about half a mile wide in places.

"I don't know how anyone survived," Maddox told reporters. He said some neighborhoods had been "removed from the map…. There are parts of this city I don't recognize, and that's someone that's lived here his entire life."

About 600 injured converged on DCH Regional Medical Center in Tuscaloosa. About 100 were admitted, 13 of them to the intensive care unit.

"The thing that amazed me was that everybody was so dirty," said Brad Fisher, hospital spokesman. "They looked like they'd been dragged behind a wagon."

Throughout the day in Tuscaloosa, rescue workers, worried neighbors and people looking for friends streamed in and out of the Rosedale Court public housing complex. In the early afternoon, Pastor M.L. Edmondson, his wife and son were walking hurriedly toward the wreckage, hoping to find two teenage girls who attend his Redeemed Apostolic Church.

Navigating the changed landscape was difficult. Entire buildings were gone.

"Dedre, it's right around here, isn't it? The house?" he called to his wife.

"It woulda been straight back," she said.

People standing in what had been kitchens scavenged for clean tennis shoes and dusty console televisions.

"Hey — y'all know a Letica Carter?" the pastor asked a passing group of teenagers.

They shook their heads. Edmondson found the house, marked with Katrina-like runes from the emergency crews. He stood among the rubble for a moment, taking it in.

"My God," he said.

His wife appeared around the corner. Somebody told her the girls were safe.

Nearby at the massive, badly damaged Charleston Square apartments, property manager Frances Brannon tried to keep up a chipper, business-like demeanor even though she was nearly killed in the business office Wednesday night.

Residents were not being allowed in because of a possible gas leak. On the other side of the complex, police in yellow reflective jackets were searching for a possibly a lost girl.

One resident, Anderson M. Hambright, came in to ask about his place.

"Where were y'all last night?" Brannon asked him.

"In the bathroom on the floor," he said. "We had a car demolished."

"Most everybody did," she said. "What about renter's insurance. Did you ever get that in place?"

"No ma'am, I never did get that in place."

The parts of Tuscaloosa that were spared destruction were not spared disruption.

University of Alabama spokesman Shane Dorrill said that the campus was not damaged, but finals, scheduled for next week, had been canceled. Graduation ceremonies that were scheduled for May 7 will be moved to August.

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