A historic tornado outbreak battered six Southern states, swooping like a deadly scythe from Mississippi to New York, killing hundreds, injuring many more, flattening neighborhoods and forcing the closure of a nuclear power plant in Alabama, the hardest-hit state.
Search and rescue teams combed through the matchstick remains of homes and businesses in several states Thursday looking for survivors or bodies as residents grappled with grief and the struggle for food, water and shelter. It is believed to be the deadliest U.S. tornado toll in 37 years.
The death count rose steadily throughout the day: at least 210 in Alabama, 34 in Tennessee, 32 in Mississippi, 14 in Georgia, 12 in Arkansas, five in Virginia and one in Kentucky.
"We do expect that number to rise," Alabama Gov. Robert J. Bentley said. "This may be the worst natural disaster in Alabama's history."
President Obama declared a state of emergency in Alabama and announced he would visit the state Friday to meet with government officials and console victims. He signed a disaster declaration making federal aid available for those who apply for it.
The tornadoes began Wednesday afternoon when violent thunderstorms collided with warm air from the Gulf of Mexico, creating the massive twisters. By early evening, a monster cloud began to spin across Alabama.
As local evening newscasts showed live shots of the dark tornado spewing pieces of buildings and other debris, broadcasters urged viewers to take cover immediately. Their voices were filled with astonishment and concern. "Please, please take our advice and get to a safe place right now," said meteorologist Jason Simpson on ABC 33/40.
Parts of Tuscaloosa, a town of about 93,000 that is home to the University of Alabama, were unrecognizable at daybreak Thursday. Storm chasers captured the immense, gray funnel cloud on video, a terrifying column that seemed to fill the sky.
"The amount of damage that is seen is beyond a nightmare," Tuscaloosa Mayor Walter Maddox said after touring the city by air. The tornado, he said, wiped out a three- to four-mile long stretch of the town. The swath was about half a mile wide in places.
"I don't know how anyone survived," Maddox told reporters. He said some neighborhoods had been "removed from the map…. There are parts of this city I don't recognize, and that's someone that's lived here his entire life."
About 600 injured converged on DCH Regional Medical Center in Tuscaloosa. About 100 were admitted, 13 of them to the intensive care unit.
"The thing that amazed me was that everybody was so dirty," said Brad Fisher, hospital spokesman. "They looked like they'd been dragged behind a wagon."
Throughout the day in Tuscaloosa, rescue workers, worried neighbors and people looking for friends streamed in and out of the Rosedale Court public housing complex. In the early afternoon, Pastor M.L. Edmondson, his wife and son were walking hurriedly toward the wreckage, hoping to find two teenage girls who attend his Redeemed Apostolic Church.
Navigating the changed landscape was difficult. Entire buildings were gone.
"Dedre, it's right around here, isn't it? The house?" he called to his wife.
"It woulda been straight back," she said.
People standing in what had been kitchens scavenged for clean tennis shoes and dusty console televisions.
"Hey — y'all know a Letica Carter?" the pastor asked a passing group of teenagers.
They shook their heads. Edmondson found the house, marked with Katrina-like runes from the emergency crews. He stood among the rubble for a moment, taking it in.
"My God," he said.
His wife appeared around the corner. Somebody told her the girls were safe.
Nearby at the massive, badly damaged Charleston Square apartments, property manager Frances Brannon tried to keep up a chipper, business-like demeanor even though she was nearly killed in the business office Wednesday night.
Residents were not being allowed in because of a possible gas leak. On the other side of the complex, police in yellow reflective jackets were searching for a possibly a lost girl.
One resident, Anderson M. Hambright, came in to ask about his place.
"Where were y'all last night?" Brannon asked him.
"In the bathroom on the floor," he said. "We had a car demolished."
"Most everybody did," she said. "What about renter's insurance. Did you ever get that in place?"
"No ma'am, I never did get that in place."
The parts of Tuscaloosa that were spared destruction were not spared disruption.
University of Alabama spokesman Shane Dorrill said that the campus was not damaged, but finals, scheduled for next week, had been canceled. Graduation ceremonies that were scheduled for May 7 will be moved to August.
Students said power was out in dorm rooms, and classes were canceled Thursday and Friday. Cellphone service was spotty, and many businesses were closed. Many streetlights were out, snarling the city in massive traffic jams. Hundreds of people wandered around aimlessly, snapping cellphone photos.
The student recreation center was converted into a shelter. Donated food and water poured in. Casey Ferris, 19, a sophomore, was finishing off a paper plate of food, wondering about his next move. Ferris said his off-campus apartment complex wasn't too badly damaged, but it was without power — at least 787,700 were without electricity statewide Thursday afternoon.
In the Cedar Crest neighborhood, a collection of modest single family homes near the university, the tornado uprooted trees, twisted a Chevron station into a Frank Gehry-esque vision of flying sheet metal, gutted a CVS store and left a Mattress King a hulky, filthy ruin. Block after block of homes were reduced to nothing but walls.
On one street, a group of young people marveled at a large boxy appliance — it wasn't clear exactly what it was — suspended in a tree. A Winnie the Pooh crib bumper hung from another tree.
Cars were thrown around, their windows bashed, their metal battered and caked with mud. A Chevy 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 into his cellphone. "It's really sad."
Kirk Miller, 36, and his wife, Rachelle Miller, 44, stood outside the custom four-bedroom home they built four years ago. One side was staved in from the top, dropping the roof onto their ski boat and motorcycle.
Rachelle and 3-year-old Wyatt were home alone when the tornado struck. She put Wyatt on his stomach in a windowless bathroom and covered him with her body.
When they walked outside, Rachelle was shocked. "Mommy," Wyatt said, "our house is broken."
Near Huntsville, Ala., the three reactors of the Tennessee Valley Authority's Browns Ferry Nuclear Plant automatically shut down after losing power when lines that carry electricity outside of the facility came down in the tornadoes.
"As soon as that happened, the plant did what it was supposed to, which is shut down automatically," spokesman Scott Brooks said. Safety systems operated as needed, according to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which was monitoring the situation. The plant was being closely watched because of the nuclear plant crisis in Japan, which has revived a debate in the United States over the safety of nuclear energy.
It was too soon to put a dollar figure on the damage. Between 1990 and 2009, tornadoes accounted for $97.8 billion in insured losses in the United States, second only to hurricanes, which accounted for $152.4 billion, according to the Insurance Information Institute.
The tornadoes were the result of storms that formed when northbound warm, humid air collided with cooler air over Texas, Arkansas and Louisiana and bumped up against warm winds from the Gulf of Mexico, said meteorologist Bob Smerbeck of Accuweather.com.
"All the ingredients were there for the storms to maintain themselves a long time," Smerbeck said.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration estimated that there were 164 tornadoes on Wednesday that began in Mississippi and raged in a northeast arc as far as New York, where one was reported in the town of Swartwood. The largest previous number of tornadoes on record is 148 on April 3-4 in 1974.
This has been an especially active year for tornadoes, NOAA reported. So far, there have been 745, including more than 600 in April. The average for April during the past decade is around 160. The previous yearly record was set in 2004, with 1,820. May is historically the most active month for tornadoes, raising concerns about the possibility of a record number this year.
The previous most deadly series of tornadoes occurred in April 1974, when more than 300 people in 13 states died.
Fausset reported from Tuscaloosa, Ala., and Abcarian from Los Angeles
Staff writers Stephen Ceasar and Michael Muskal contributed to this story from Los Angeles and Richard Simon from Washington.