The Associated Press reports that the death toll from the horrific storms sweeping through the Southeast has risen to 178. Alabama emergency management teams have found 128 dead as they sift through the rubble, more than doubling their initial assessment. There are 32 dead in Mississippi, 11 in Georgia, 6 in Tennessee, and one in Virginia.
The shocking death toll resulted from an incredible swarm of tornadoes spawning out of the system, some of them hitting densely populated areas, including the city of Tuscaloosa. The mayor of Tuscaloosa told CNN that tornadoes “literally obliterated blocks and blocks of the city.” Meteorologist Josh Nagelberg of Accuweather.com told Reuters it might have been the worst tornado in Alabama history.
Students from the University of Alabama spent the night crawling through dark piles of rubble in the surrounding area with flashlights, although the university itself seems to have escaped major damage. Abandoned cars tread water on flooded streets. Trees have been torn down across Birmingham, while a Red Cross spokesman described a fleet of ambulances racing through the city like taxicabs. Hundreds of thousands of people are still without power. Survivors sit upon the wreckage of flattened homes, waiting for horror to melt into grief.
In Mississippi, three women were torn out of a mobile home by a tornado and thrown to their deaths in a pine forest. A courageous police officer in Choctaw County died shielding his nine-year-old daughter from a falling tree with his body. A 3-year-old girl in McComb, Mississippi, was crushed in her bed by another falling tree. Five people died in the same Alabama house when it was obliterated by a tornado.
The Browns Ferry nuclear plant near Huntsville had to switch to emergency diesel generators to maintain safe operation, which was done flawlessly. The Tennessee Valley Authority ended up closing three nuclear power plants during the storm. The National Weather Service had to abandon its office in Huntsville, which has got to be the kind of thing meteorologists tell campfire stories about.
Disaster areas and states of emergency have been declared across the region. Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour, who just passed on a presidential run and now finds himself facing his state’s greatest hour of need, said in a statement: “Our thoughts and prayers are with the families who lost loved ones or property in these devastating spring storms. A large section of our state has been impacted, and our emergency responders are doing an excellent job in helping communities.”
Alabama governor Robert Bentley mobilized 1400 National Guardsmen to assist with search and rescue operations, saying “these Guardsmen are well trained and will take every action necessary to protect lives and property in this emergency.”
Georgia governor Nathan Deal sized up the damage to his state: “Right now, we’re seeing fatalities, injuries, and serious property damage in northwest George, and we’ve seen terrible damage to the west in Alabama from these same storms… We will keep those who have suffered greatly in our thoughts and prayers.”
President Obama has approved a request from Governor Bentley for emergency federal assistance in Alabama. “While we may not know the extent of the damage for days, we will continue to monitor these severe storms across the country and stand ready to continue to help the people of Alabama and all citizens affected by these storms,” the President said in a statement. He added that he and First Lady “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. 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.”
I’ve been near a tornado, and they do indeed sound like trains. Death rode the rails across the Southeast yesterday, and few empty seats were left in his passenger car by the time his ghostly train had passed in the night. I offer my deepest condolences for those who lost their lives, and good luck to those who are still searching for survivors among the ruins.
Update: The official death toll is now over 200.