Updated: The death toll in five Southern states rose sharply Thursday morning to 173 after devastating storms ripped through the region, spawning a deadly tornado in downtown Tuscaloosa, Ala., and leaving a trail of flattened homes and buildings in an area already battered by storms.
Across Alabama, at least 128 people were killed by storms on Wednesday alone, according to news reports. The Associated Press reported an additional 32 deaths in Mississippi, 11 in Georgia and 1 each in Tennessee and Virginia. As of 9 p.m., more than 412,000 people were without electricity, according to Alabama Power.
President Barack Obama announced a state of emergency in Alabama, freeing up federal agencies to lend assistance. He released a statement saying it could be days before the full extent of the damage from the storm is known.
“Michelle and I extend our deepest condolences to the families of those who lost their lives because of the tornadoes that have swept through Alabama and the southeastern United States,” President Obama said.
“Our hearts go out to all those who have been affected by this devastation, and we commend the heroic efforts of those who have been working tirelessly to respond to this disaster.”
The Tuscaloosa tornado was one of several that hit Alabama. It tore through the city after 5 p.m. on a northwest path, sweeping past a major medical centre, the University of Alabama campus and a high school.
Many parts of the state had been on a tornado watch throughout the day, prompting schools, government offices and businesses to close early or shut down. One of the Mississippi dead was a father trying to shelter his daughter at a campsite when he was killed.
Mayor Walter Maddox of Tuscaloosa said that many sections of the city had been destroyed. News footage showed paramedics lifting a child out of a flattened home, with many other buildings in the city of more than 83,000 people also reduced to rubble. “The city experienced widespread damage from a tornado that cut a path of destruction deep into the heart of the city,” Mr Maddox said in the interview on Wednesday evening.
Mark Kelly, a spokesman for the Jefferson County Emergency Management Office, said the storm had picked up speed as it barreled out of Tuscaloosa and headed for the western part of the county, passing north of downtown Birmingham, which was battered by another storm early Wednesday morning.
He added that he had gotten reports of roofs torn from homes, people trapped in buildings, and power lines strewn across interstate roads, but that crews were just beginning to respond. At least 11 people were killed in Jefferson County on Wednesday, “but we expect that number will go up as search and rescue efforts go on through the night and into tomorrow,” he said.
The tornado barely missed the campus of the University of Alabama, although several off-campus housing complexes were damaged or destroyed.
21-year-old Michael Neese, a junior at the university, was in his apartment off 15th Street when the tornado passed by. “It was like a white cloud just twirling in the parking lot next door to me,” he said. “It tore Tuscaloosa up. All of 15th Street is gone.”
In Mississippi, Lieutenant Wade Sharp of the Louisiana state police was killed during a camping trip in a state park when a tree branch fell on his tent. Three other men were also killed by falling fallen trees.
A girl of three died in Mississippi on Tuesday after a tree fell on her house. Another 10 people died in Arkansas because of flooding and a tornado.
Wendy Pesnell lost her home when a tornado hit after 6 am on Wednesday. She told ABC News: “It’s just kind of like. It makes you stop and think you know, ‘Wow.’ You know, we’re here one minute and be gone the next.”
George Bearden said the tornado hit so fast that he and his family had no time to run. “Pieces of our house are scattered across two countries,” he said. “But we survived it.”
This tornado was only the latest in a series that have struck the southern United States this week, causing heavy rains and flooding in an area stretching from Texas to Georgia, officials said on Wednesday. [via The Telegraph (UK), Hawaii News Now, ABC News and The NY Times]