A growing toll: At least 77 die in four states The devastation: Tornado shreds Alabama city
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. – A wave of tornado-spawning storms strafed the South on Wednesday, splintering buildings across hard-hit Alabama and killing at least 77 people in four states.
Some 61 people died in Alabama alone, including 15 in Tuscaloosa when a massive tornado barreled through the area. Sections of the city that’s home to the University of Alabama have been destroyed, the mayor said, and the city’s infrastructure was devastated.
Farther north, a nuclear power plant west of Huntsville lost power and was operating on diesel generators. In Mississippi, 11 deaths were reported, four people were killed in Georgia and one in Tennessee.
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.
“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.
The storm system spread destruction Tuesday night and Wednesday from Texas to Virginia, and it was forecast to hit the Carolinas next before moving northeast.
President Barack Obama said he had spoken with Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley and approved his request for emergency federal assistance, including search and rescue assets.
Around Tuscaloosa, traffic was snarled Wednesday night by downed trees and power lines, and some drivers abandoned their cars in medians. University officials said there didn’t appear to be significant damage on campus, and dozens of students and locals were staying at a 125-bed shelter in the campus recreation center.
Volunteers and staff were providing food and water to people like 29-year-old civil engineering graduate student Kenyona Pierce.
“I really don’t know if I have a home to go to,” she said
Maddox said authorities were having trouble communicating, and 1,400 National Guard soldiers were being deployed around the state. The flashing lights of emergency vehicles could be seen on darkened streets all over town, and some were using winches to remove flipped vehicles from the roadside.
In a commercial district near the university, students with flashlights checked out the damage. Signs were blown down in front of restaurants, businesses were unrecognizable and sirens wailed off and on throughout the night.
Storms also struck Birmingham, felling numerous trees that impeded emergency responders and those trying to leave hard-hit areas. Surrounding Jefferson County reported 11 deaths; another hard-hit area was Walker County with eight deaths. The rest of the deaths were scattered around the state, emergency officials said.
The Browns Ferry nuclear power plant lost offsite power, and the Tennessee Valley Authority-owned plant had to use seven diesel generators to power the plant’s three units. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission said the safety systems have operated as needed and the emergency event was classified as the lowest of four levels.
In Huntsville, meteorologists found themselves in the path of a tornado and had to evacuate the National Weather Service office.
In Choctaw County, Miss., a Louisiana police officer was killed Wednesday morning when a towering sweetgum tree fell onto his tent as he shielded his young daughter with his body, said Kim Korthuis, a supervisory ranger with the National Park Service. The girl wasn’t hurt.
The 9-year-old girl was brought to a motor home about 100 feet away where campsite volunteer Greg Maier was staying with his wife, Maier said. He went back to check on the father and found him dead.
“She wasn’t hurt, just scared and soaking wet,” Maier said.
By late Wednesday, the state’s death toll had increased to 11 for the day.
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