Twister outbreak is second deadliest in US history

/ Source: news services

Authorities say the fatality toll from the devastating tornadoes across the South has climbed to 337, making it the second-deadliest day for a twister outbreak in U.S. history.

The largest death toll ever was on March 18, 1925, when 747 people were killed in storms that raged through Missouri, Illinois and Indiana.

Alabama was in the path of the most destruction this time with at least 246 deaths. Authorities on Saturday raised the total number of confirmed dead in several states to 337.

The second deadliest day had been in March 1932, when 332 people died, all in Alabama.

The 1925 outbreak was long before Doppler radar could warn communities of severe weather. Forecasters say residents were warned, but the twisters were too powerful to avoid the horrifying body count.

On Friday President Barack Obama toured some of the destroyed neighborhoods and met with devastated residents.

"I've never seen devastation like this," Obama said after touring the Tuscaloosa area. "It is heartbreaking."

Tuscaloosa saw at least 42 deaths. "We are bringing in the cadaver dogs today," said Heather McCollum, an assistant to Tuscaloosa's mayor.

Visible from Air Force One as Obama neared Tuscaloosa: a wide, angry scar across the land where the tornado had gouged its path.

And as the president moved by motorcade through communities and business districts, suddenly the devastation was everywhere: flattened buildings, snapped trees and heaps of rubble, twisted metal and overturned cars as far as the eye could see.

First lady Michelle Obama was at the president's side as he offered condolences.

Late Thursday, the president signed a disaster declaration for Alabama to provide federal aid to those who seek it.

The president's visit drew a muted response from Tuscaloosa resident Derek Harris, who was pushing a grocery buggy down a street where virtually every home was heavily damaged. The 47-year-old and his wife hoped to use the cart to salvage a few belongings from his home.

"Hopefully he'll give us some money to start over," Harris said of Obama. "Is FEMA here? The only place I'm hearing anything is at the Red Cross center."

Some were more upbeat about the president's visit, including 21-year-old Turner Woods, who watched Obama's motorcade pass on its way to tour damaged areas. "It's just really special having the president come here," she said. "It will bring more attention to this disaster and help get more help here."

Body bag shortage in one town
The situation was dire about 90 miles to the north in the demolished town of Hackleburg, Ala., where officials were keeping bodies in a refrigerated truck amid a body bag shortage. At least 27 are dead there, and searches for the missing continue.

The only grocery store, the fire and police departments and the school are destroyed. There's no power, communications, water or other services. Fire Chief Steve Hood said he desperately wants scores of flashlights because he doesn't want people using candles due to the fire hazard.

"We don't have water to put out any fires," he said.

People have looted a demolished Wrangler jeans plant, and authorities locked up drugs from a destroyed pharmacy in a bank vault, said Stanley Webb, chief agent in the county's drug task force.

"If people steal, we are not playing around. They will go to jail," he said.

About three hours to the west, parts of Rainsville were also flattened. At Rainsville Funeral Home, Lisa Chandler and her husband have been working 6 a.m. to midnight to arrange services and prepare bodies.

The work is tough because they know most of the victims. But the couple keeps at it — they have five visitations planned for Friday night.

"How am I handling it?" Lisa Chandler said. "I cry a little and I pray a lot."

Just outside of town, residents picked through their scattered belongings on a road, with people in cars stopping to offer bread, water and crackers. An AM radio station transmitted offers of help. One store was giving away air mattresses. An Italian restaurant was serving free hot meals. A glass shop was offering to replace shattered windows for free.

Firefighter Jamie Armstrong blinked back tears as he recalled finding a 5-year-old girl lifeless in a field near Rainsville, far from any house. Her brother was alive, but Armstrong wasn't sure if he was going to make it.

Despite the devastation, he said the storm had strengthened his belief in God.

"The truth is, God could take any one of us right now. But he spared me and you," he said.

With 238 deaths confirmed by late Friday, Alabama bore the brunt of the devastation. Other state death tolls so far: Tennessee (34), Mississippi (34), Georgia (15), Virginia (5), Louisiana (2), and Kentucky (1). Some 1,700 people were injured in Alabama alone.

The deadliest outbreak prior to this week's was in March 1932, when 332 people died. Most of those dead were also in Alabama. With the increase Friday, the death toll surpassed that of a 1974 outbreak, when 310 people died.

The National Weather Service estimated that there were 211 tornadoes on Wednesday and Thursday, the largest outbreak ever recorded. The previous record in one event occurred from April 3-4, 1974, with 148 tornadoes, the agency said.

The powerful tornadoes combined with storms to cut a swath of destruction heading west to east. It was the worst U.S. natural disaster since Hurricane Katrina in 2005, which killed up to 1,800 people.

The high death toll seems surprising in the era of Doppler radar and precise satellite forecasts. But the storms were just too wide and too powerful.

"These were the most intense super-cell thunderstorms that I think anybody who was out there forecasting has ever seen," said meteorologist Greg Carbin at the National Weather Service's Storm Prediction Center.

"If you experienced a direct hit from one of these, you'd have to be in a reinforced room, storm shelter or underground" to survive, Carbin said.

As many as a million homes and businesses there were without power, and 2,000 National Guard troops were activated to help in Alabama. The governors of Mississippi and Georgia also issued emergency declarations for parts of their states.

In Birmingham, Police Chief A.C. Roper said rescue workers sifted through rubble "hand to hand" on Thursday to pull people from destroyed homes.

"We even rescued two babies, one that was trapped in a crib when the house fell down on top of the baby," Roper said on PBS NewsHour.

The storms seemed to hone in on populated areas by hugging the interstate highways and obliterating neighborhoods and even entire towns from Tuscaloosa to Bristol, Va.

Concord, a small town outside Birmingham, was so devastated that authorities closed it down to keep out rubberneckers.

Randy Guyton's family, which lived in a large home at the base of a hill, rushed to the basement garage, piled into his pickup truck and listened to the roar as the twister devoured the house in seconds. Afterward, they saw outside through the shards of their home and scrambled out.

"The whole house caved in on top of that car," he said. "Other than my boy screaming to the Lord to save us, being in that car is what saved us."

Given the apparent destruction, insurance experts were wary of estimating damage costs, but believed they would run into the billions of dollars.

Some of the worst damage was in Tuscaloosa, a city of more than 83,000 that is home to the University of Alabama.

Police used bullhorns to tell people not to cross the tape to a neighborhood they were searching. On the other side, people were walking over glass, through pools of water, endless piles of debris and smashed cars. The city imposed a 10 p.m. curfew for Thursday and an 8 p.m. limit for Friday.

In Phil Campbell, a town of 1,000 in northwest Alabama where 26 people died, the grocery store, gas stations and medical clinic were destroyed by a tornado that Mayor Jerry Mays estimated was a half-mile wide and traveled some 20 miles.

"We've lost everything. Let's just say it like it is," Mays said. "I'm afraid we might have some suicides because of this."

Officials said at least 13 died in Smithville, Miss., where devastating winds ripped open the police station, post office, city hall and an industrial park with several furniture factories.

Bodies were found in fields and away from homes, indicating victims had either been outside when the storm came or got carried away by the wind, said Monroe County Sheriff Andy Hood.

At Smithville Cemetery, even the dead were not spared: Tombstones dating to the 1800s, including some of Civil War soldiers, lay broken on the ground. Brothers Kenny and Paul Long dragged their youngest brother's headstone back to its proper place.

At least eight people were killed in Georgia's Catoosa County, including in Ringgold, where a suspected tornado flattened about a dozen buildings.

"It happened so fast I couldn't think at all," said Tom Rose, an Illinois truck driver whose vehicle was blown off the road at I-75 North in Ringgold, near the Tennessee line.

Lisa Rice, owner of S&L Tans in nearby Trenton, survived by climbing into a tanning bed with her two daughters: Stormy, 19, and Sky, 21.

"We got in it and closed it on top of us," Rice said. "Sky said, 'We're going to die.' But, I said, 'No, just pray. Just pray, just pray, just pray.'"

For 30 seconds, wind rushed around the bed and debris flew as wind tore off the roof.

"Then it just stopped. It got real quiet. We waited a few minutes and then opened up the bed and we saw daylight," she said.

The difference between life and death was hard to fathom. Four people died in Bledsoe County, Tenn., but Mayor Bobby Collier also had good news to report after a twister swept through.

"There was a modular home that was actually picked up and thrown across the road," Collier said. "The family was in it. It was totally destroyed."

And the family?

"They were OK."