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Devastating storms swirl into Georgia as death toll rises

/ Source: msnbc.com news services

A wave of tornado-spawning storms that ravaged Mississippi and Alabama, having splintered buildings in its path and leaving scores dead in its wake, is now in Georgia.

Authorities said early Thursday that nine people had been killed in that state, increases the death toll to 82 across four states in the South. Alabama is by far the hardest-hit, with at least 61 deaths, including 16 in Tuscaloosa, according to the city's mayor. The death toll was expected to rise.

The university town of Tuscaloosa was obliterated, a nuclear power plant had to use backup generators and even a weather service office had to be evacuated because of the storms. The mayor said the city's infrastructure was devastated.

Birmingham was also hard hit by the same massive tornado, which touched down near the Mississippi state line and then spent more than two hours on the ground before tracking northeast.

Local TV channels showed the black wedge cloud, estimated at a mile wide, moving through Tuscaloosa, then along Interstate 59 through Birmingham's northern suburbs and just missing the airport.

In Mississippi, 11 people had been killed. Nine people were killed in Georgia and one in Tennessee.

The storms also spawned tornadoes in Virginia and were heading northeast, where they had already caused flooding in New York.

In Tuscaloosa, news footage showed paramedics lifting a child out of a flattened home, with many neighboring buildings in the city of more than 83,000 also reduced to rubble. A hospital there said its emergency room had admitted about 100 people, but had treated some 400. Charts weren't even started for many patients because so many people were coming in at once. By midnight, only staff and patients were allowed inside.

"What we faced today was massive damage on a scale we have not seen in Tuscaloosa in quite some time," Mayor Walter Maddox told reporters, adding that he expected his city's death toll to rise.

President Barack Obama declared an emergency in Alabama, and Gov. Robert Bentley mobilized 1,400 National Guardsmen to help in rescue operations.

'Total devastation' Back in Alabama, at least 11 people were confirmed dead earlier in the towns of Concord and Pleasant Grove near Birmingham, according to Jefferson County Emergency Management officials. Injuries and structural damage were widespread there and in other suburbs of Birmingham, which has a metro population of 1 million.

In Tuscaloosa, home to the University of Alabama, cars were tossed along a commercial street and dozens of stores were destroyed or damaged. Ambulances were seen rushing to the area after the storm passed. Video taken at the university showed a massive funnel cloud flinging huge pieces of debris through the air.

"It looks like somebody came through with a huge ax and cut the top off of everything. Just a big blade through that whole area," resident . "That area is just total devastation."

Another resident, Phil Owen, said only one store was left standing at a shopping center. "Big Lots, Full Moon Barbecue. Piles of garbage where those places were," he said. "Shell gas station across the street — all that's standing is the frame of the store."

At Stephanie's Flowers, owner Bronson Englebert used the headlights from two delivery vans to see what valuables he could remove the valuables. The storm blew out the front of his store, pulled down the ceiling and shattered the windows, leaving only the curtains flapping in the breeze and the steel siding rattling.

"It even blew out the back wall, and I've got bricks on top of two delivery vans now," Englebert said. A group of students stopped to help Englebert, and carried out items like computers and printers and putting them in his van.

"They've been awfully good to me so far," Englebert said.

"Please pray for us," Tuscaloosa Mayor Walter Maddox said on The Weather Channel as crews fanned out to search for victims in the city of nearly 100,000.

As the night progressed, more tornadoes and severe thunderstorms were tracking northeast, roughly paralleling the line of the most devastating storm.   

Damage from storms throughout the day was reported from Huntsville in the northern part of the state, south to Montgomery.

Earlier, an area of northwest Alabama near the Mississippi state line was hit especially hard.

In the town of Phil Campbell, , citing Police Chief Merrell Potter.

NBC station WAFF of Huntsville reported that dozens of people were unaccounted for in the small town of Red Bay. WAFF said that at least six people had been killed in the small town of Arab.

Just to the east in Cullman, Ala., which is north of the track of the tornado that hit Tuscaloosa and Birmingham, officials said they saw a twister tear through the downtown area, destroying or damaging most buildings along the main street, including the courthouse and a church. One person was reported killed in the area.

People inside City Hall took shelter in a vault, Mayor Max Towson said. Crews were out looking for any victims and surveying the damage, he added.

Sandra Smith, left, is hugged by a neighbor in Moody, Ala., Wednesday, April 27, 2011 after a tree fell into her mobile home bedroom and missed crushing her by just a few inches. Smith was asleep when the tree fell and was not injured. Violent weather passed over much of Alabama early Wednesday. (AP Photo/The Birmingham News,Bernard Troncale).BERNARD TRONCALE / THE BIRMINGHAM NEWS

Three nuclear reactors at the Browns Ferry plant west of Huntsville, Ala., were shut down Wednesday after losing power, and 11 high-voltage power lines were knocked out by the storms, the Tennessee Valley Authority and regulators said. Northern Alabama was facing power outages that would last for days, WAFF reported.

The president and first lady Michelle Obama offered condolences to families affected by the storms and commended "the heroic efforts of those who have been working tirelessly to respond to this disaster."

The White House declaration authorizes the Federal Emergency Management Agency to coordinate disaster relief efforts in Alabama.

The National Weather Service there was a high risk for severe weather into Wednesday night. The greatest threat for new tornadoes was in northern Alabama, northwest Georgia, eastern Mississippi and southern Tennessee, .

The overall system also reportedly spawned a tornado in Quantico, Va., Wednesday evening.

Summary of casualties Below is a look at other states hit by the severe weather overnight and into Thursday morning.

Mississippi: The Mississippi Emergency Management Agency said the state's death toll is now 11.

Jeff Rent, a spokesman for the agency, confirmed the number Wednesday night and said there have been more than 40 injuries.

Authorities said a possible tornado heavily damaged much of the town of Smithville in Monroe County.

"The same areas keep getting hit over and over again," Rent said.

A police officer on a camping trip was killed while shielding his daughter when the storm ripped through a state park in northern Mississippi. The victim, from Covington, La., was not immediately identified.

"He covered his daughter with his body when the storm came through to protect her. A tree limb fell and hit him in the head, killing him. The daughter was not hurt. She was still at the campground waiting for family to arrive," Choctaw County Coroner Keith Coleman said.



Another man was crushed in his mobile home when a tree fell during the storm, and a truck driver died after hitting a downed tree on a state highway.

A worker was killed Wednesday in Yazoo County while removing a tree from a roadway.

Arkansas: One person died in a storm in Sharp County late Tuesday.

Dozens of tornado warnings were issued in Arkansas throughout the night. Strong winds peeled part of the roof off of a medical building next to a hospital in West Memphis, near the Tennessee border, but no one was inside.

Louisiana: Police said they believed two people found dead in Monroe had drowned during heavy flooding Wednesday.

Thunderstorms with high winds and possible tornadoes caused tree and power line damage from Bastrop to Tishomingo County in northeastern Mississippi late Tuesday night and early Wednesday morning.

Officials reported minor injuries in northwestern Louisiana when a trailer at an oil drilling site turned over in high winds in Bossier Parish.

Angela Milchak uses a cell phone to photograph damage to her house and cars from fallen trees after a Wednesday, April 27, 2011 storm system battered the Tiftonia neighborhood of Chattanooga, Tenn.. Milchak's husband, Eric, is a Chattanooga police officer and his patrol car windows were also smashed. (AP Photo/Bill Poovey) Bill Poovey / AP



Tennessee: In eastern Tennessee, what appeared to be a tornado struck just outside Chattanooga in Tiftonia, at the base of the tourist peak Lookout Mountain. One person was reported killed by falling trees in her trailer in Chattanooga.

Angela Milchack had just dropped off her son at school. Students took cover and none were hurt.

"It just sounded like the wind was blowing really, really hard," she said.

Texas: At least one person was injured when a storm slammed through the tiny town of Edom some 75 miles east of Dallas late Tuesday. Witnesses described seeing what they thought was a tornado rolling the woman's mobile home with her inside.

A video shot by the Tyler Morning Telegraph showed emergency responders covering the injured woman to shield her from rain and hail. Her mobile home was reduced to a pile of debris in the road.

"We have multiple houses damaged or destroyed," said Chuck Allen, Van Zandt County emergency management spokesman. He said he would survey the area by helicopter Wednesday to get an accurate count.

Georgia: Severe storms in northwest Georgia downed trees, blew out windows in a hospital and tore off part of a school roof. Nine people were reported killed in the storms as of early Thursday morning.

Two of those deaths were in Ringgold, where up to 200 people were reported injured. Dade County Sheriff Patrick Canon that three people died in his county. He said his family's home was flattened.