The death toll from this week’s tornadoes continued to climb Saturday morning, making the storms fueled by record winds the second worst in history.
As the rescue and relief efforts continued through much of seven states, officials braced for what was being called a humanitarian crisis. Hundreds of thousands of people remained without power; usable water was in demand. In hard-hit Tuscaloosa, the University of Alabama decided to end the school year early.
The Alabama Emergency Management Agency on Saturday morning reported that the state’s death toll has risen to 254, pushing the region’s total to more than 340. Mississippi and Tennessee each reported 34 deaths. Fifteen deaths were reported in Georgia, five in Virginia, two in Louisiana and one in Kentucky.
It was the deadliest storm toll since March 18, 1925, when 747 people were killed in Missouri, Illinois and Indiana. The current numbers were expected to grow as would-be rescuers combed through rubble and debris.
On Saturday, Tuscaloosa Mayor Walt Maddox said 39 people were confirmed dead in the area and 454 people were reported as missing, though that number may include multiple reports on the same person. About 30,000 people remained without power. Recovery teams will resume their work, he said.
More than 1,000 National Guard troops were en route, Maddox said and thousands of people were volunteering. Maddox said a mobile center from Federal Emergency Management Agency was on its way so that people could register for help.
“Clearly, this is their responsibility, and we’re not going to get their swim line,” Maddox said.
President Obama toured Tuscaloosa on Friday, where he called the damage the worst he had seen and pledged again that his administration would help Alabama and the rest of the storm-struck region. Obama has already signed disaster declarations for Alabama and parts of Mississippi.
FEMA announced that it has officials on the ground in five states and has established a staging area to Maxwell, Ala. More than 2 million liters of water, 1 million meals, roughly 60,000 tarps and other supplies are either en route or have arrived in Maxwell, the agency said. More than 100 generators are at the area for emergency power for police and other emergency services.
The Red Cross had set up a two shelters in Tuscaloosa, one of which housed 240 people and fed another 600 overnight Friday, according to officials.
The tornado damage also led University of Alabama to end the school year early, spokeswoman Cathy Andreen said on Saturday. Many students who live outside of Tuscaloosa have already gone home, she said.
Students can opt out of their final exams, which were to be held next week and keep their current grades, Andreen said. The school’s commencement ceremony, planned for a week from Saturday, has been postponed until August.
While much of the national attention has focused on Alabama, which is where most of the death and destruction took place, other areas, out of the limelight, face tragedies just as devastating.
Much of Smithville, a town of 857 in northeast Mississippi, was destroyed. In scenes that have been replicated in several states, television caught wooden buildings turned into kindling, structures reduced to skeletons and roads made impassable by debris.
The Mississippi Emergency Management Agency reported that the National Weather Service confirmed that an EF-5 tornado with winds up to 205 mph struck the city of Smithville Wednesday afternoon -- the first EF-5 tornado to hit Mississippi since March 1966. The EF-5 designation is the agency’s most deadly.
The tornado had a maximum width of half a mile and a path length of 2.82 miles. Of 34 deaths and 160 injuries reported in Mississippi, 14 deaths and 40 injuries were in Monroe County where Smithville is located. Fourteen people were still reported missing as of Friday night.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported that there were 211 tornadoes that hit the region Wednesday into Thursday. The largest previous number of tornadoes on record in one event took place from April 3-4, 1974, with 148 tornadoes.
Staff writer Richard Simon contributed to this report from Washington.