Powerful Storms Kill Dozens in Tennessee, Midwest

Authorities struggle to cope with destruction caused by a series of tornadoes and storms that swept the South and Midwest. At least 27 people died as a result of the storms, most of them in the western portion of Tennessee. The storms hit five other states, downing power lines and damaging homes.

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

Strong storms and tornadoes tore through eight states in the South and Midwest yesterday, killing more than two dozen people and destroying many homes and businesses.

Tennessee was the hardest hit. Tornadoes struck five northwestern counties there. Most of the deaths occurred along a 25 mile section northeast of Memphis.

Joining us from Dyersburg, Tennessee, is NPR's Audie Cornish. And Audie, describe what you've seen there today.

AUDIE CORNISH reporting:

Well, as with many tornadoes, you are struck by sort of the randomness with which it touches down. You'll go along one stretch of highway and you'll see a line of homes that don't appear like anything is wrong with them. And then you turn a corner or go down a hill and you find that every single tree is splintered in half, most of the homes, ones of which there is anything left to see, are missing roofs or seem to be gutted from the inside with maybe just one or two walls standing.

And right now, there are a great many people who are, even though they've been let back towards the area where their home is, it's still too early for them to even do any real cleanup. They're just trying to salvage things from trees and nearby gullies that were torn apart during the tornadoes.

BLOCK: Audie, with this many deaths, you do wonder whether people had adequate warning that these storms were coming their way.

CORNISH: It's interesting. The people that I did speak with today all said that they had warning. And I'm out in Nashville and I heard the tornado warnings throughout the evening because there were thunderstorms with some of the telltale signs of predictors for tornadoes, which is hail. And so that was going on throughout the night.

But out here, people say that by the time they really realized it's time to leave, by the time they may have heard the sirens, the storm was really upon them. The tornado had touched down in their area and that meant that some people were just caught in it as they were trying to drive away.

Some people tried to follow the instructions you hear with emergency warnings for tornadoes, which is to hide somewhere in your house, a basement, a bathtub, a hallway, a doorway, and some people did die in that manner.

BLOCK: What have people there said about how emergency crews responded?

CORNISH: I think people, again, feel like the emergency warnings and approach was fine. Although, I've heard here in Dyersburg and in the area of Newbern, which is, again, this is all about 80 miles north of Memphis, that there may have not have been a chance to get to the fire department to turn the sirens on. That the local sort of volunteer staff may not have been able to get there in time, and some people said they did not hear a warning.

But in general, the effort right now has been focused on one, finding the missing, two, really clearing away the area enough and sufficiently and safely so that people can even pass to their homes.

Right now there're many roads that are just blocked off, or where there are live electrical wires that are down, that it's been difficult for people to get back and see what happened to the houses that they may have escaped from last night.

BLOCK: You mentioned an effort to find the missing. I'm sure it's still possible that there are people in the rubble who are injured or possibly who've been killed.

CORNISH: This is a very difficult area to search because there are so many trees that are down, and it's such a rural area. Emergency officials told me today that they were bringing in ATVs and four-wheelers, and this was just to plow away towards the home that's often on a, off the beaten path, in order to bring people back to the ambulances waiting on the main road.

So, that process in itself was long and hard, and they're still looking for missing people that they've heard from their loved ones and say this person might have stayed behind. And so that search continues, and state troopers have also introduced some help in the form of cadaver searching dogs.

BLOCK: NPR's Audie Cornish in Dyersburg, Tennessee. Audie, thank you.

CORNISH: Thank you.

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