Alabama, Southern states pounded by 'catastrophic' storms; at least 250 dead

A deadly storm front pummeled Alabama and at least five other Southern states, spawning tornadoes and leaving officials on Thursday facing a climbing death toll, major property damage and an intense search-and-rescue effort after one of the worst such disasters in decades.

The number of deaths hit 162 in Alabama alone, with loss of life in Mississippi, Tennessee, Georgia, Virginia and Kentucky bringing the preliminary total to about 250. That number is expected to rise, officials said.

The White House announced that President Obama would visit Alabama on Friday.

Photo gallery: Storms and tornado destroy Alabama neighborhoods

"We had a major catastrophic event in Alabama," Gov. Robert Bentley said in a telephone news conference. Also attending was Craig Fugate, head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, who was to travel to the region later Thursday.

"We have major destruction," Bentley said. In the morning the death count stood at 131 but increased as rescuers dug through the rubble. "We do expect that number to rise today, we're sure it will."

Bentley said that between half a million and 1 million people in Alabama were without power and that there were numerous injuries, especially in Tuscaloosa, which seems to be among the hardest hit areas in the state. A nuclear power plant was shut down in Alabama.

Bentley said that he had relatives in Tuscaloosa who had survived the storm's onslaught.

"The family came through OK," he told reporters, "but I'm concerned with everyone's family."

Aircraft flew search missions, and rescuers on the ground used dogs to probe the rubble of homes and buildings. Local emergency officials interviewed on cable networks painted a picture of a massive cleanup across an area more than 60 miles long and more than half a mile wide in some places.

Fugate said the scale of the damage was enormous, approaching the days of early April 1974, when more than 300 died from storms.

"Our thoughts are with the families and communities in Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia and the other states that have been devastated by the severe storms and tornadoes that ripped through the region last night," he said. He pledged that the federal government was prepared to help. "Throughout this storm, the heroes have been the first responders, neighbors, volunteers and many others who have been working day and night to protect the public's health and safety. At FEMA, we're just one part of this team, and we're continuing to work closely with our state and local partners and tribal governments to make sure they have all the support they need for the duration of this storm."

President Obama declared a state of emergency for Alabama on Wednesday night. More than 1,500 National Guard soldiers were being deployed across the state.

"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," Obama said.

The extent of the current toll was difficult to confirm, and officials were careful to avoid citing a specific number while rescue efforts were underway in individual states. But so far, Mississippi officials reported 32 dead, Tennessee raised its report to 33, Georgia reported 13, Virginia said it had eight deaths and Kentucky reported at least one death. The number of injured was in the hundreds, with that number also expected to rise.

All of the states declared states of emergency, and Bentley said his state will seek expedited federal assistance.

The latest storm began Wednesday afternoon. The National Weather Service's Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Okla., said it received 137 reports of tornadoes.

Bentley said Alabama residents were prepared for the storms, but the violent weather moved into the region too quickly and forcefully to make evacuation effective.

"It was just the force of the storm," the governor told reporters. "It's hard to move that many people."

Officials estimate the intensity of the storm at F4 or F5, meaning winds in excess of 150 mph.. Whole neighborhoods were flattened.

One of the hardest-hit areas was Tuscaloosa, a city of more than 83,000 and home to the University of Alabama. The city's police and other emergency services were devastated, Mayor Walter Maddox said. At least 36 people were reported dead and more than 600 injured.

"I don't know how anyone survived," Maddox told reporters. 'We're used to tornadoes here in Tuscaloosa. It's part of growing up. But when you look at this path of destruction that's likely 5 to 7 miles long in an area a half-mile wide to a mile wide, I don't know how anyone survived. It's an amazing scene. There's are parts of this city I don't recognize, and that's someone that's lived here his entire life."

At a news conference at Tuscaloosa City Hall, Maddox, who had just toured his city by air, said some neighborhoods had been "removed from the map." The devastation crossed the city's economic lines, from middle-class housing for University of Alabama students and employees to one of the city's oldest public-housing complexes.

Officials were in an "urgent" phase of search and rescue, digging for bodies and trying to account for everyone. But the task was made more difficult because a key city building that housed the emergency management agency had been destroyed. So had most of the city's trash-pickup fleet. Two major water tanks were empty, Maddox said, and the city was facing potential shortages. He urged conservation.

"This is going to be a very long process," he said. "The amount of damage that is seen is beyond a nightmare. ... This will not be an easy journey. We ask for patience and we ask for prayers."

One of the hardest-hit neighborhoods was Cedar Crest, a collection of modest single-family houses near the university, home to many campus workers, professors and students and surrounded by strip malls, stores and fast-food restaurants. On Thursday morning, much of it was closed to cars, but throngs of people walked the streets — rescue personnel, gawkers, college students in running shoes and fraternity and sorority T-shirts.

The devastation was unavoidable and widespread. Trees were uprooted and broken on the ground, a gasoline station twisted into an accidental version of a Gehry building made of sheet metal, the drug store gutted and a mattress store turned into a hulking, filthy ruin. Block after block of homes were turned into skeletons with nothing but walls as silent sentries. On one street, a group of young people marveled at a large boxy appliance — it wasn't quite clear what kind — suspended about 20 feet up in a tree. A Winnie the Pooh crib bumper hung from another tree, like a sad banner from an awful party.

Cars had been thrown around, their windows bashed in, their metal battered and caked with mud. A newish Chevy Avalanche pickup was clogged with chewed chunks of fiberboard, its "door ajar" signal bonging nonstop.

"Dad, we're at ground zero here, and it's awful," a young man said, speaking into his cellphone. "It's really sad."

Kirk Miller, 36, and his wife, Rachelle, 44, were standing outside of the custom four-bedroom home they built four years ago. One side of it had been caved in from the top, with much of the roof falling on their ski boat and Kirk's motorcycle.

They felt, though, that they had escaped the worst: Kirk had been traveling on business Wednesday night, and Rachelle and their 3-year-old son, Wyatt, were alone when the tornado came. When she knew it was coming, she put Wyatt on his stomach in a windowless bathroom and covered him with her body. They made it. Their dogs made it.

When they walked outside, Rachelle said, she couldn't believe what she saw. Wyatt said, "Mommy, our house is broken."

Kirk said he grew up in Alabama and that tornadoes were not an abstraction to him. He said that when he heard there had been some damage, he figured he'd see the usual -- shingles strewn around, a few trees down.

But this time, he said, "I just couldn't believe it. All the trees were down. It's just all gone. It ain't Tuscaloosa anymore."

Photo gallery: Storms and tornado destroy Alabama neighborhoods

richard.fausset@latimes.com

michael.muskal@latimes.com

Fausset reported from Alabama and Muskal from Los Angeles.

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