Tornado death toll expected to rise as searches continue amid devastation

Los Angeles Times

On a morning of clear skies and picture-perfect weather forecasts, residents of some of the hardest-hit areas of the South began focusing on recovering from deadly tornadoes that killed hundreds of people across six states.

Tuscaloosa Mayor Walt Maddox said Friday morning that the confirmed death toll in his devastated college town had risen to 38 -- a number he said he believed would continue to grow as search teams set out.

Maddox said he told officials that their designation of his town as a "disaster" area was inadequate.

Photo gallery: Swaths of the South in ruins

"I would classify it as a nightmare," Maddox said of the tornado that ripped through the city of about 93,000 that is home to the University of Alabama.

Maddox, in a radio interview, said his resources were "stretched extremely thin" as the town continued its search-and-rescue efforts and struggled to tend to its estimated 900 injured and house the thousands of people made homeless by the twister.

The 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, where Gov. Robert Bentley said Thursday that he would boost the number of Alabama National Guard troops headed for Tuscaloosa from 500 to 1,000.

It is believed to be the deadliest U.S. tornado toll in 37 years.

The death count rose steadily throughout Thursday: at least 210 in Alabama, 34 in Tennessee, 32 in Mississippi, 14 in Georgia, 12 in Arkansas, five in Virginia and one in Kentucky.

Maddox urged residents in parts of the city to boil their water and proceed carefully through intersections with broken traffic signals, and cautioned that there would be no trash collection for days. A curfew has been imposed for the next two nights, he said.

"This is massive," he said of the destruction. "It's of a scale I don't think anybody can appreciate.

"This is a deep crisis."

But Maddox also said he was heartened by the way the town has come together.

"I saw whites, blacks, young, old working together yesterday on a house to save this little girl," he said.

In Birmingham, where damage also was severe, weather forecasters began the day announcing sunny weather over the weekend.

Radio and news broadcasts issued appeals for all kinds of basic supplies, and insurance advertisements asked people to begin assessing damage and submitting claims.

On the streets, National Guard troops rolled into neighborhoods where homes had turned into little more than sticks and debris.

President Obama, who declared a state of emergency in Alabama on Thursday, is scheduled to visit the state Friday to meet with government officials and console victims. He signed a disaster declaration making federal aid available.

Photo gallery: Swaths of the South in ruins

Linthicum reported from Tuscaloosa and Bermudez reported from Birmingham.,

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