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Dozens Killed In Southern Storms; Alabama Battered

Birmingham Rescue attends to a man who was injured after a tornado hit Pratt City, Ala., on Wednesday.
Butch Dill
Birmingham Rescue attends to a man who was injured after a tornado hit Pratt City, Ala., on Wednesday.

A wave of tornado-spawning storms strafed the South on Wednesday, splintering buildings across hard-hit Alabama and killing 72 people in four states.

At least 58 people died in Alabama alone, including 15 or more when a massive tornado devastated Tuscaloosa. The city's mayor said sections of the city that's home to the University of Alabama have been destroyed and the city's infrastructure is devastated.

Eleven deaths were reported in Mississippi, two in Georgia and one in Tennessee.

News footage showed paramedics lifting a child out of a flattened Tuscaloosa home, with many neighboring buildings in the city of more than 83,000 also reduced to rubble. A hospital there said its emergency room had admitted at least 100 people.

"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.

NPR's Russell Lewis, who was in the town of Pleasant Grove, Ala., told Melissa Block that he could see debris on the road.

"The devastation here is really immense from what I've seen: houses just flattened," he said.

The storm system spread destruction Tuesday night and Wednesday from Texas to Georgia, and it was forecast to hit the Carolinas next and then move further northeast.

Around Tuscaloosa, traffic was snarled Wednesday night by downed trees and power lines, and some drivers abandoned their cars in medians. University officials said there didn't appear to be significant damage on campus, and it was using its student recreation center as a shelter.

Maddox said authorities were having trouble communicating, and 1,400 National Guard soldiers were being deployed around the state.

Brian Sanders, the manager of an oil change shop, brought his daughters to DCH Regional Medical Center because he felt they'd be safe there. He said his business had been leveled.

"I can't believe we walked away," he said.

NPR's Lewis said it may not be until Thursday morning that officials get a clear idea of how bad the damage was.

Cleanup begins in a Vilonia, Ark., neighborhood Tuesday after a tornado struck the area late Monday. The storm system killed 10 people in Arkansas and one in Mississippi.
Danny Johnston / AP
Cleanup begins in a Vilonia, Ark., neighborhood Tuesday after a tornado struck the area late Monday. The storm system killed 10 people in Arkansas and one in Mississippi.

Storms struck Birmingham earlier in the day, felling 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 said.

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."

Not far away, Craig Branch was stunned by the damage.

"Every street to get into our general subdivision was blocked off. Power lines are down; trees are all over the road. I've never seen anything like that before," he said.

In Huntsville, meteorologists found themselves in the path of tornado and had to evacuate the National Weather Service office.

In Choctaw County, Miss., a Louisiana police officer was killed Wednesday morning when a towering sweetgum tree fell onto his tent as he shielded his young daughter with his body, said Kim Korthuis, a supervisor with the National Park Service. The girl wasn't hurt.

The 9-year-old girl was brought to a motorhome about 100 feet away where campsite volunteer Greg Maier was staying with his wife, Maier said. He went back to check on the father and found him dead.

"She wasn't hurt, just scared and soaking wet," Maier said.

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, his colleague in Louisiana.

Also in Mississippi, a man was crushed in his mobile home when a tree fell during the storm, a truck driver died after hitting a downed tree on a state highway and a member of a county road crew was killed when he was struck by a tree they were removing.

By late Wednesday, the death toll had increased to 11 for the day, said Mississippi Emergency Management Association spokesman Jeff Rent. The governor also made an emergency declaration for much of the state.

Storms also killed two people in Georgia and one in Tennessee on Wednesday. Aside from the 39 deaths on Wednesday, one person was killed by the same storm system late the previous night in Arkansas.

An overnight storm dumped another 2 inches on Poplar Bluff, Mo., where the Black River poured over spots along the earthen levee that protects the town. About 1,000 homes were evacuated Monday when the river spilled over the levee and flooded low-lying neighborhoods and farmland.

Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon deployed the Missouri National Guard to help with water rescues. More than 150 people were plucked from porches, attics, and rooftops between Poplar Bluff and the neighboring town of Qulan, some 15 miles downstream. Butler County Sheriff's Lt. Brian Evans described the scene as "surreal."

"It's the biggest lake I've ever seen, I guess. The bottom part of the county is all flat and it's farmland. And it's pretty much covered," he said. An estimated 7,000 people live in the flooded area.

Poplar Bluff police Capt. Mike McClain said Wednesday that the levee had held up overnight and that there had been no reports of injuries.

In eastern Tennessee, a woman was killed by falling trees in her trailer in Chattanooga. Just outside the city in Tiftonia, what appeared to be a tornado also struck at the base of the tourist peak Lookout Mountain.

Tops were snapped off trees and insulation and metal roof panels littered the ground. Police officers walked down the street, spray-painting symbols on houses they had checked for people who might be inside.

Mary Ann Bowman, 42, stood watching from her driveway as huge tractors moved downed trees in the street. She had rushed home from work to find windows shattered at her house, and her grandmother's house next door shredded. The 91-year-old woman wasn't home at the time.

"When I pulled up I just started crying," Bowman said.

Many around the region were happy to survive unscathed even if their houses didn't. In Choctaw County, Miss., 31-year-old Melanie Cade patched holes in her roof after it was heavily damaged overnight. Cade was in bed with her three children when the storm hit.

"The room lit up, even though the power was out. Stuff was blowing into the house, like leaves and bark. Rain was coming in sideways," she said, adding that they managed to scurry into a bathroom.

"I didn't care what happened to the house," Cade said. "I was just glad we got out of there."

NPR's Kathy Lohr in Atlanta, Tanya Ott of member station WBHM in Birmingham, Ala.; Jacob McCleland of member station KRCU in Missouri; and Brett Tannehill of member station WLRH in Huntsville, Ala., reported for this story, which contains material from The Associated Press.

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NPR Staff and Wires
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