Killer Storms Hit Southern States

It was another day of utter devastation across the southeastern United States Wednesday. Scores of people were killed in a half-dozen states by storms bearing tornadoes. Residents of Alabama were especially hard-hit.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

We're going to spend the next few minutes now on a tornado zone. The death toll is in the hundreds across the South. We can expect it to change all day. A powerful spring weather system has devastated areas in several states. The hardest-hit areas were in Alabama, which is where we find NPR's Russell Lewis.

RUSSELL LEWIS: The bad weather was not a surprise. Some schools canceled classes yesterday morning. Government offices closed early and newspapers across Alabama had warned of the possibility of severe afternoon storms. Still, even TV forecasters were shocked by what showed up.

(Soundbite of news broadcast)

Unidentified Man: (Forecaster): This is a very, very dangerous situation. Take our warning right now. It is now churning through southern, the city of Tuscaloosa. My god. Look at that. Folks, this is a violent tornado. My god, look at that thing. It's huge.

LEWIS: The tornado was estimated to be at least a mile wide and it stayed on the ground for more than two hours. Around 5 p.m., right at rush hour, the tornado crashed into Tuscaloosa. The twister just missed the University of Alabama campus. But it flattened several neighborhoods where students live and destroyed dozens of businesses.

Tuscaloosa mayor Walt Maddox.

Mayor WALT MADDOX (Tuscaloosa): I'm requesting that all citizens avoid travel as much as possible, so that we can provide the necessary responses in our neighborhoods and in our streets.

(Soundbite of chainsaw)

LEWIS: Crews worked late into the night clearing debris. This gigantic oak branch splintered like a brittle toothpick. When it fell, it brought down a power line. Electricity was out for tens of thousands of people. Ambulances screamed across town for hours. Tuscaloosa's main hospital, DCH, was operating on backup power. Inside, dozens of patients lined the corridors waiting for treatment.

Ms. PATRICE JONES (Nurse): Have you seen Emily Avery? Do you know her?

Unidentified Woman: Yes.

LEWIS: Patrice Jones is the chief nurse at DCH. They were using every bit of space to treat patients - the cafeteria, conference rooms, even hallways. She darted by bandaged and bloodied patients. Elderly. Infants. White. Black. Latino. No one, it seemed, was spared the tornado's fury. The hospital had as many as 2,000 doctors and nurses working on the wounded.

Ms. JONES: We do a lot to prepare. But I don't know how you ever prepare for anything of this magnitude.

LEWIS: As quickly as doctors treated the injured, waves of new patients flooded into the hospital, some with serious injuries, others with small cuts. DCH's Brad Fisher says that created a new problem.

Mr. BRAD FISHER (DCH): We've had so many folks and we've been clearing them out, and then, you know, they got no place to go home to and no way to get there if they did.

LEWIS: People were lined outside the hospital, waiting for buses to take them to shelters that opened to house the newly homeless. Scenes like this were common across North Central Alabama. After the tornado left Tuscaloosa, it slammed into Pleasant Grove. Police sergeant Jon Grigsby was at the command center giving residents bad news.

Sergeant JON GRIGSBY: I came through there and everything is demolished.

Unidentified Man: On Fourth Avenue?

Sgt. GRIGSBY: Yes.

Unidentified Man: You're kidding me. I hope my house. I ain't been...

Sgt. GRIGSBY: No, I'm serious. The tornado came straight through the middle of town.

LEWIS: The smell of natural gas floated through the air. There was so much debris on the streets, rescuers had to hand carry their equipment and walk into the hardest-hit areas.

Lynn Crawley grew up here in Pleasant Grove. When she heard the storm coming, she ran next door to her mom's house and huddled with her. The tornado obliterated the roof and walls. Only the hallway was left standing. The hallway they were in.

Ms. LYNN CRAWLEY: It finally got quiet and took us a while to realize and was able to move and was able to kind of pull ourselves out from under it. And the roof was gone, everything. It's like, wow. And it was raining. It - awful experience.

LEWIS: After Pleasant Grove, the tornado continued on to Birmingham. Eighteen-wheelers were blown off the interstate and homes crushed by debris. For the first time in many days, the forecast here today is for sunny skies. Rescue crews say they'll need the nice weather to continue the difficult task of cleaning up and searching for survivors.

Russell Lewis, NPR News, Tuscaloosa, Alabama.

INSKEEP: Other southern states were also hard hit. A number of people were killed in Georgia and also in Mississippi. In Choctaw County, Mississippi, a Louisiana police officer was killed Wednesday morning in a park where he was camping in a tent. A tree fell onto the tent as he shielded his young daughter, who survived.

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