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Twister outbreak is second deadliest in US history

/ Source: NBC News and news services

The death toll from this week's storms rose to 342 Saturday, according to an NBC News count, making the tornado outbreak the second deadliest in U.S. history.

With some estimates putting the number of homes and buildings destroyed close to 10,000, state and federal authorities in the U.S. South were still coming to terms with the scale of the devastation from the country's worst natural catastrophe since Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

In Tuscaloosa, Ala., alone, up to 446 people were still unaccounted for in the city, though Mayor Walt Maddox said many of those reports probably were from people who have since found their loved ones but have not notified authorities.

There was a brief moment of hope Saturday afternoon when Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley told reporters that three survivors had been found buried under rubble in Concord, Ala. But Mark Kelly, spokesman for Jefferson County Emergency Management Agency, later said that the report, which he had passed along, was false.

"That report unfortunately is not true. No one was found. We had earlier confirmed that based on information we had received from some of our people working in the field," Kelly told CNN.

"We followed up on it and have discovered that it is not in fact the case," Kelly added.

The storms killed at least 250 people in Alabama.

The number of deaths has now surpassed that of a twister outbreak that hit Alabama in March 1932, killing 332 people.

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

The 1925 outbreak was long before the days when Doppler radar could warn communities of severe weather.

Forecasters have said residents were told the latest tornadoes were coming, but they were just too wide and powerful and in populated areas to avoid a horrifying body count.

Hundreds if not thousands of people were injured Wednesday — 990 in Tuscaloosa alone — and as many as 1 million Alabama homes and businesses remained without power.

The scale of the disaster astonished President Barack Obama when he arrived in the state Friday.

"I've never seen devastation like this," he said, standing in bright sunshine amid the wreckage in Tuscaloosa.

Hours later, Obama signed disaster declarations for Mississippi and Georgia, in addition to one he had authorized for Alabama.

Catastrophe risk modeling company EQECAT said that with initial reports of nearly 10,000 destroyed buildings, property insurance losses were expected to range from $2 to $5 Billion.

"Tornado activity in April is putting 2011 into the record books," it said, adding that the recent tornado outbreak had involved "hundreds of touchdowns, some tornado tracks reported to be almost a mile wide and tens of miles long causing hundreds of fatalities."

By Friday, residents whose homes were blown to pieces were seeing their losses worsen — not by nature, but by man.

In Tuscaloosa and other cities, looters have been picking through the wreckage to steal what little the victims have left.

"The first night they took my jewelry, my watch, my guns," Shirley Long said Friday. "They were out here again last night doing it again."

Overwhelmed Tuscaloosa police imposed a curfew and got help from National Guard troops to try to stop the scavenging.

But many people sought to help, rather than take advantage of the chaos.

Across the South, volunteers started pitching in almost as soon as the storms passed through.