TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — 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 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 neighbouring 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.
The storm system spread destruction Tuesday night and Wednesday from Texas to Georgia, and it was forecast to hit the Carolinas next before moving further northeast.
President Barack Obama said he had spoken with Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley and approved his request for emergency federal assistance, including search and rescue assets.
“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,” Obama said in a statement.
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 dozens students and locals were staying at a 125-bed shelter in the campus recreation centre.
Maddox said authorities were having trouble communicating, and 1,400 National Guard soldiers were being deployed around the state. The flashing lights of emergency vehicles could be seen on darkened streets all over town, and some were using winches to remove flipped vehicles from the roadside.
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.
In Huntsville, meteorologists found themselves in the path of tornado and had to evacuate the National Weather Service office.
In Mississippi, a 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 supervisory ranger with the National Park Service. The girl wasn’t hurt.
By late Wednesday, the state’s 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.
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.