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Storm of the Year: Four Ferocious Days, 38 Lives Lost

It was a quiet tornado season in the United States until this week, when a relentless storm system slowly raked across the country.
Image: Sam Smith helps a family friend salvage what he can from his business that was destroyed by a tornado on April 29, 2014 in Tupelo, Miss.
Sam Smith helps a family friend salvage what he can from his business that was destroyed by a tornado on April 29, 2014 in Tupelo, Miss. A deadly tornado ripped through the area April 28, after deadly storms moved through the south spawning tornadoes that have left more than a dozen dead. Joe Raedle / Getty Images

Last week, forecasters were marveling at how quiet the tornado season was. Zero deaths through mid-April, the safest start to the season in a decade. Zero tornadoes stronger than 135 mph, the first time since 1950.

That changed over four hellacious days of wind and water.

On Wednesday, a sprawling, lumbering storm system was finally making its way off the East Coast. But not before it shattered homes and families, ripped open cars and churches and whole roads, and ended 38 lives in eight states.

Day 1: Sunday

The National Weather Service was well ahead of the storm. On Wednesday of last week, it warned of a “significant multi-day severe weather event.” By Sunday, as forecasters refined their predictions, Arkansas was in the crosshairs.

That morning, in the Little Rock suburb of Vilonia, Wade Lentz, the pastor of the Baptist church, handed over the keys to a new, donated home to a mother and her disabled son. At another service, Dan Wassom’s little girls fought over who got to sit next to him.

That evening, the sky turned a sick gray. Tornado sirens began to wail. TV weather forecasters warned people to take cover immediately.

In the town of Mayflower, next to Vilonia, Mark Ausbrooks was standing outside his parents’ house, getting a look at the gathering storm from a carport, when his 79-year-old mother shouted: “Get in the house!”

Inside, he heard the roar. The three of them huddled in a closet. He had one arm around each of his parents. They prayed. The storm tore the roof off their house, but they made it alive.

Lentz waited the storm out at his parents’ place. He drove home to find his truck flipped on its head, the family dog missing and his home destroyed.

Others were not so lucky. Wassom was shielding his girls, 5 and 7, in a hallway in their home when a beam crashed down, hit his neck and killed him. He was one of at least four people killed on his street, Aspen Creek Drive, alone.

A father and two daughters were killed in Paron, Ark., and six other children from the same family were hospitalized. One surviving daughter said the family huddled under the stairs before a twister blew the walls away.

Cameron and Tyler Smith, brothers 8 and 7 years old, were still getting settled in Vilonia and loved fishing, baseball and God, a family friend said. They were killed when a tornado hit their house.

In all, 15 people died on Sunday in Arkansas, two in Iowa and one in Oklahoma. And the storms were just getting started.

Image: Tornado Victims
Top: Ruth Bennett, Paula Blakemore, Mark Bradley, Jeffrey Hunter, Dennis Lavergne, Glenna Lavergne, Daniel Wassom, BOTTOM: Cameron Smith, Tyler Smith, John Servati, Rebekah Tittle, Rob Tittle, Tori TittleFacebook | Family Photos

Day 2: Monday

On Monday, the system churned east, but not far. Forecasters warned that the worst was not over, and they were painfully right.

The next round was a fusillade of tornadoes, more than 50 reported over 24 hours, that laid waste to parts of Mississippi, Alabama and Tennessee. In Kimberly, Ala., the fire department and the Church of God were demolished.

John Servati, a Dean’s List business major and a swimmer for the University of Alabama, died in Tuscaloosa when a retaining wall in his basement collapsed on him. A friend said that Servati had held the wall up long enough for his girlfriend to escape.

In Fayetteville, Tenn., a married couple, John and Karen Prince, returned to their mobile home to check for damage. They mistakenly believed the danger was over, and were killed in another storm, neighbors said.

“We pulled up, and were in shock seeing our own home,” Tiffani Danner, a neighbor whose own home was destroyed, told The Associated Press. “Then we saw Karen’s father, and he said, ‘John and Karen are gone. They didn’t make it.’”

In Louisville, Miss., Ruth Bennett was holding the last child left at her day care center when a tornado struck and tore the building from its foundation. A firefighter later pulled the toddler from her lifeless arms.

“It makes you pay attention to life,” Kenneth Billingsley, a neighbor, told the AP.

The overall death toll climbed to 35.

Day 3: Tuesday

On the third day, the storm dealt its fury in water, not wind. Florida and, once again, Alabama got smacked.

It rained so hard in Pensacola, Fla., that it broke the National Weather Service rain gauge — at least 11 inches, but nobody knows for sure. Five inches fell in a single hour, more than during all of Hurricane Ivan in 2004.

Trucks plunged 40 feet when part of a highway broke clean off. One home rain gauge showed an astonishing 2 feet of rain in 26 hours.

“It went on and on and on. It was relentless,” Cheryl Clendenon, who was stranded for a time in her home in Pensacola Beach, told NBC News. “I used to like the sound of rain to help me get to sleep, but this was like Chinese water torture. It just did not stop.”

Elsewhere on the low-lying Panhandle, people clambered to their attics to escape rising water. Bill Pearson, a spokesman for Escambia County, said authorities there described it as the worst flooding in a generation.

Hundreds of people were stranded in cars and trucks on washed-out roads. At least one didn’t survive: A man in Florida drove into the water and then called for help, but the water was moving too quickly and it was too late.

Crews had to pluck people out of stranded cars and trucks in Alabama and North Carolina.

Day 4: Wednesday

Mercifully, Wednesday was expected to be the last of it. The storm was headed toward the Atlantic coast. The risk for tornadoes was highest in the Carolinas and Virginia.

But the day turned deadly before noon. Two people were reported killed in weather-related deaths in Georgia — a woman who crashed her car on a flooded road and another person hit by a tree branch.

They were the 37th and 38th people to die in the weeklong storm outbreak.

Meanwhile, rescues of the stranded continued in Florida. Brian Hatler, a fire battalion chief in Pensacola, told NBC News that the National Guard was expected to arrive by early afternoon.

The flooding was so serious that his department was using a military surplus truck known as a “deuce and a half” — a 2½-ton truck to plow through the high water and conduct rescues.

Elizabeth Chuck, Tracy Connor and Carlo Dellaverson of NBC News contributed to this report.