Local and state officials warned Wednesday that they would not tolerate a slow response from the federal government after the deadliest wave of tornadoes in a decade killed at least 55 people across the South, 31 of them in Tennessee alone.
President Bush planned a visit Friday to Tennessee, the hardest hit of five states where residents were trying to salvage what they could from homes reduced to piles of debris. More than 150 other people were injured, and thousands were left without power after as many as 50 twisters were reported in Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi, Arkansas and Alabama.
Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., echoed the concerns of numerous government officials in the affected states when he recalled the sluggishness with which the Federal Emergency Management Agency responded to Hurricane Katrina in 2005. He told FEMA Director David Paulison on Wednesday that he would “not tolerate a slow reaction time.”
“FEMA must not use bureaucratic excuses to avoid helping Arkansans,” Pryor said in a letter to Paulison.
Bush promised that the federal government would step up to the plate this time, calling the governors of all five affected states and vowing to help “in any way we can.”
“This is a bad storm that affected a lot of people in a variety of states,” Bush said at a swearing-in ceremony for his new secretary of agriculture. “Our administration is reaching out to state officials.”
Michael Chertoff, secretary of the Homeland Security Department, which oversees FEMA, said he took the concerns seriously and was personally consulting with state officials to make sure they got what they needed.
Worst tornado impact in two decades
The Associated Press reported that the death toll was the highest in an outbreak of tornadoes since 76 people were killed in Pennsylvania and Ohio on May 31, 1985.
“This is one of the most impressive February outbreaks ever,” said Bill Karins, a meteorologist with NBC Weather Plus, who said the worst impact was in Arkansas and Tennessee.
Tennessee emergency management officials said 31 people died in the state overnight.
Video: Path of destruction “I’ve been working 34 years, and I’ve never seen anything like this,” said Keith Scruggs, emergency management director in Macon County, Tenn., where 12 people were reported to have been killed.
“Roads are blocked. It’s massive. We can’t tell the extent of the damage yet,” Scruggs said. “They have search teams going out now to check subdivision developments, housing and more rural areas.”
The state Highway Patrol reported looting in Macon County, said Julie Oaks, a spokeswoman for the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency.
“Obviously, that’s not something that needs to be going on,” she said. “If people are caught looting, they will go to jail.”
‘Two seconds later, our house was gone’
Ferena Farrington of Antioch, Tenn., described taking cover with her family one minute, then being flung through the air the next before landing in a neighbor’s yard.
Farrington broke her back in the fall and was being treated at Vanderbilt University Hospital in Nashville. Her husband suffered a broken pelvis and was being treated at a hospital in Bowling Green, Ky. The couple’s baby was not injured.
“I really closed my eyes as tight as I could, and I really just prayed to God that, you know, He would just keep us safe and hang on to us,” Farrington said, according to NBC affiliate WSMV of Nashville.
“It was scary. It was very scary. They say it literally sounds like a freight train coming, and it did,” she said. “It was really quiet, then two seconds later, our house was gone.”
Northeast of Nashville, a spectacular fire erupted at a natural gas pumping station. The station took a direct hit from the storm, but no deaths connected to the fire were reported.
Jackson, Tenn., was hit with an extraordinarily powerful Force 4 tornado packing winds above 207 mph, which trapped 16 people in a damaged dormitory at Union University until rescuers could dig them out, NBC News’ Terry Pickard reported. Tim Ellsworth, the college’s news director, said about 50 students were taken to hospitals, nine of them seriously injured.
“It was really scary looking around, and people crying, blood on their faces and soaking it all in, thinking it was a nightmare,” said Natalie West, a sophomore at the university.
Impact could have been worse
As bad as the impact was, it could well have been much worse, said James Bassham, director of the Tennessee emergency agency, who said the biggest risk during a tornado is to large groups of people trapped inside structures.
Although it is the height of high school basketball season in Tennessee, Bassham noted that there were few games Tuesday evening.
“We could have had games last night, with 400, 500, 600 people in there when tornadoes went through,” he said.
Gov. Phil Bredesen said the state was also fortunate that the tornadoes largely avoided densely populated areas. He said the death toll could have been much higher as he took a helicopter tour of Macon, Sumner and Trousdale counties to survey the damage Wednesday.
Electric infrastructure gutted
In Arkansas, where 13 people were killed, officials said it was impossible to calculate the damage, but they said it was severe.
Nearly 400 homes were heavily damaged or destroyed in the small town of Gassville alone, NBC’s Ron Blome reported. In Clinton, much of electricity infrastructure was destroyed, leaving 80 percent of the town’s residents without power for as long as the next week, the Arkansas Electric Cooperative said.
Arkansas Gov. Mike Beebe surveyed the damage by helicopter Wednesday in Atkins, about 60 miles northwest of Little Rock, and wondered at the sheer arbitrariness of the destruction.
“You can see a path of destruction, and just a few yards away it looks like it was untouched,” Beebe said. “They are arbitrary and random, and you just never know.”
In Clinton, where three people were reported killed, Chad Mason of the Van Buren County Sheriff’s Office said the view heading into town was once blocked by a tree line, but now you could see clear across the valley.
Authorities evacuated Stone County Medical Center in Mountain View, Ark., after tornado damage rendered its emergency room useless, state emergency officials said. The hospital’s 17 patients were moved to other facilities, and its surgery unit was open Wednesday for emergency assessments and transfers.
Wind, rain as system moves east
Late Wednesday, the official number of dead stood at 31 in Tennessee, 13 in Arkansas, seven in Kentucky and four in Alabama.
In many places, the storms struck as Super Tuesday primaries and caucuses were ending. As the extent of the damage quickly became clear, presidential candidates Hillary Rodham Clinton, Barack Obama and Mike Huckabee paused in their victory speeches to remember the victims.
The system moved eastward to Alabama on Wednesday, bringing heavy rain and gusty wind and 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. Weather service experts also investigated damage in Indiana to see if it was caused by tornadoes.
Karins of NBC Weather Plus said conditions were not favorable for another large tornado outbreak, however. He said the main damage Wednesday would likely be from hail and wind, with only a few scattered tornadoes.
An apparent tornado damaged eight homes in Walker County, Ala., and a pregnant woman suffered a broken arm when a trailer home was tossed by the wind, said Johnny Burnette, the county’s emergency management director.
By Alex Johnson of msnbc.com and Lester Holt and Brian Mooar of NBC News. NBC affiliates KARK of Little Rock, Ark.; WRCB of Chattanooga, Tenn.; and WSMV of Nashville, Tenn., contributed to this report.