A wave of tornado-spawning storms strafed the South on Wednesday, splintering buildings across hard-hit Alabama and killing 77 people in four states.
At least 61 died in Alabama alone, including 16 when a massive tornado devastated Tuscaloosa. The mayor said sections of the city that’s home to the University of Alabama were obliterated and its infrastructure decimated.
“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 tornado “paralyzed many city operations that directly respond to events like we experienced today,” he said. “Pray for us.”
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.
The injured flocked to DCH Regional Medical Center. More than 200 were admitted and four of them died, hospital spokesman Brad Fisher said.
“We got no water and we’re on emergency power,” he told The Times. “It’s pandemonium.”
The hospital itself was damaged, Fisher said. Nine diesel generators provided power Wednesday night, as patients and workers relied on bottled water.
Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley declared a state of emergency and mobilized 1,400 National Guard troops to help with search and rescue and law enforcement.
President Obama declared the state a disaster.
“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,” he said in a statement. “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.”
Around Tuscaloosa, traffic was snarled by downed trees and power lines, and some drivers abandoned their cars in medians. University officials opened the student recreation center as a shelter.
Blaine Duncan, 34, a high school teacher, had Wednesday off. The storms had been so bad Tuesday evening that the school day had been canceled citywide. About 5:15 p.m., he was relaxing at the home he shares near the university with T.D. Wood, 26, a cook at a local restaurant.
“I was watching the news, and they had a camera stationed in downtown Tuscaloosa on a rooftop,” Duncan told The Times. “It picked up a tornado heading practically straight for the camera, which would mean it was headed straight for our house.”
The camera went dark. Then Duncan’s power went out. He and Wood fled to the hallway, hoping to be safer there. They waited as a low rumbling became a loud rumbling. It was over in 90 seconds. They were fine.
But what they saw outside was shocking. Trees down and blocking their residential street, trees bashed into homes, homes with gashes in the roofs and, then, a few blocks away, a more apocalyptic scene:
“Complete devastation,” Duncan said, “to the point where it was piles of bricks instead of buildings.”
The University Mall was badly damaged, he said, as was the strip mall that housed the Barnes & Noble. Cars were overturned in the middle of the street with windows broken out. People were roaming amid the rubble, surveying the damage, or “displaced and trying to figure out what they were going to do next.”
Tuscaloosa City Councilman Lee Garrison said the twister touched down at the southwest corner of the city and moved northeast, “staying on the ground pretty much the entire time.”
About 83,000 homes were without power. Two fire stations and a police substation were also badly hit.
“We are right now just doing what we can,” Garrison said, adding that other cities had pledged to send supplies and support.
Earlier in the day, a tornado that “looked like it was a mile wide” struck Birmingham, Mayor William Bell told CNN. That storm also felled numerous trees that impeded emergency responders and those trying to leave hard-hit areas.
Surrounding Jefferson County reported 11 deaths by late Wednesday. Another hard-hit area was Walker County, with eight deaths. The rest of the deaths were scattered around the state, emergency officials told the Associated Press.
Austin Ransdell and a friend had to hike out of their neighborhood south of Birmingham after the house where he was living was crushed by four trees. No one was hurt.
As he walked away from the wreckage, trees and power lines crisscrossed residential streets, and police cars and utility trucks blocked a main highway.
“The house was destroyed. We couldn’t stay in it. Water pipes broke; it was flooding the basement,” he said. “We had people coming in telling us another storm was coming in about four or five hours, so we just packed up.”
In Huntsville, meteorologists found themselves in the path of a tornado and had to evacuate the National Weather Service office. The Browns Ferry nuclear plant west of town lost power and was operating on diesel generators. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission said the safety systems were operating properly, and the emergency was classified as the lowest of four levels.
Eleven deaths were reported in Mississippi, four in Georgia and one in Tennessee. In addition, one person in Arkansas was killed by the same storm system Tuesday.
In Choctaw County, Miss., a Louisiana police officer was killed Wednesday morning when a towering sweet gum tree fell on his tent as he shielded his young daughter with his body, said Kim Korthuis, a supervisor with the National Park Service. The 9-year-old wasn’t hurt.
Her father, Lt. Wade Sharp, had been with the Covington Police Department for 19 years.
“He was a hell of an investigator,” said Capt. Jack West, a colleague in Louisiana.
Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour declared a state of emergency. That state’s fatalities also included a man crushed in his mobile home when a tree fell during the storm, a truck driver who hit a downed tree on a state highway and a member of a county road crew who was struck by a tree the workers were removing.
Duncan, the Tuscaloosa teacher, called the devastation “the worst thing I’ve seen with my own two eyes in person.”
The area has little choice about what to do next, he said. “I mean, the cheesy obvious answer is that we’re gonna band together and rebuild, and everthing’s going to be OK. But I guess that’s my answer, because what else are we gonna do?”
Times staff writers Richard Fausset reported from Atlanta and Stephen Ceasar from Los Angeles.