Vicious Storms Kill More Than 230 In The South - Spokane, North Idaho News & Weather KHQ.com

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@ This Hour: Search & Rescue Operations Underway After Deadly Twisters Hit

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UPDATE: President Barack Obama says he's "never seen devastation like this." The president toured tornado-ravaged areas of Tuscaloosa, Ala. today. He told Alabama residents: "We're going to make sure you're not forgotten."

UPDATE: Crews combed the remains of houses and neighborhoods pulverized by the nation's deadliest tornado outbreak in nearly four decades as survivors were left trying to figure out how to put their lives back together.

More than 300 people are feared dead across six states in Wednesday's outbreak, with some estimates putting the death toll at 319.

President Barack Obama planned a trip to Tuscaloosa on Friday to view storm damage and meet Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley and shattered families. Late Thursday, the president signed a disaster declaration for the state to provide federal aid to those who seek it.

The powerful tornadoes — more than 160 reported in total — combined with storms to cut a swath of destruction heading west to east. It was the worst U.S. natural disaster since Hurricane Katrina in 2005, which killed up to 1,800 people.

I think this is going to rank up as one of the worst tornado outbreaks in U.S. history," said Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) director Craig Fugate.

There were still unconfirmed reports late Thursday of "entire towns flattened" in northern parts of the state, Fugate said.

"We're still trying to get people through rescues and locate the missing," he said.

Those who took shelter as the storms descended trickled back to their homes Thursday, ducking police roadblocks and fallen limbs and power lines to reclaim their belongings.

They struggled with no electricity and little help from stretched-thin law enforcement. And they were frustrated by the near-constant presence of gawkers who drove by in search of a cellphone camera picture — or worse, a trinket to take home.

"It's just devastation. I've never seen this," said Sen. Richard Shelby during a visit to storm-ravaged Tuscaloosa. "This is the worst tornado devastation I've ever seen."

The storms wreaked most damage in Alabama. More than two-thirds of the victims lived there, and large cities bore the scars of half-mile-wide twisters that rumbled through. The high death toll seems surprising in the era of Doppler radar and precise satellite forecasts. But the storms were just too wide and too powerful.

As many as a million homes and businesses there were without power, and Bentley said 2,000 National Guard troops had been activated to help. The governors of Mississippi and Georgia also issued emergency declarations for parts of their states.

"We can't control when or where a terrible storm may strike, but we can control how we respond to it," Obama said. "And I want every American who has been affected by this disaster to know that the federal government will do everything we can to help you recover and we will stand with you as you rebuild."

UPDATE: Survivors and rescuers combed through destroyed towns and neighborhoods on Thursday, looking for belongings and victims after dozens of tornadoes ripped through the South overnight. The death toll continued to climb in Alabama, and at least 280 people in six states perished in the deadliest outbreak in nearly 40 years.

People in hard-hit Alabama surveyed flattened, debris-strewn neighborhoods and told of pulling bodies from rubble after the storms passed.

"We have neighborhoods that have been basically removed from the map," Tuscaloosa Mayor Walter Maddox said after surveying his city.

The death toll seems out of a bygone era — before Doppler radar and pinpoint satellite forecasts were around to warn communities of severe weather. Residents were told the tornadoes were coming up to 24 minutes ahead of time, but they were just too wide, too powerful and too locked onto populated areas to avoid a horrifying body count.

"These were the most intense super-cell thunderstorms that I think anybody who was out there forecasting has ever seen," said meteorologist Greg Carbin at the National Weather Service's Storm Prediction Center.

"If you experienced a direct hit from one of these, you'd have to be in a reinforced room, storm shelter or underground" to survive, Carbin said.

The storms seemed to hug the interstate highways as they barreled along like runaway trucks, obliterating neighborhoods or even entire towns from Tuscaloosa to Bristol, Va. One family rode out the disaster in the basement of a funeral home, another by huddling in a tanning bed.

Several of the twisters were several times more severe than a typical tornado, which is hundreds of yards wide, has winds around 100 mph and stays on the ground for a few miles, said meteorologist Harold Brooks at the Storm Prediction Center.

"There's a pretty good chance some of these were a mile wide, on the ground for tens of miles and had wind speeds over 200 mph," he said.

The center received more than 170 tornado reports around the region, but some tornadoes were probably reported multiple times and it could take days to get a final count.

Brooks said 50 to 60 reports — from the Mississippi-Alabama line, through Tuscaloosa and Birmingham and into Georgia and southwestern Tennessee — might end up being a single tornado. If that's true its path would be one of the longest on record for a twister, rivaling a 1925 tornado that raged for 219 miles.

"It happened so fast it was unbelievable," said Jerry Stewart, a 63-year-old retired firefighter who was picking through the remains of his son's home in Pleasant Grove, a suburb of Birmingham. "They said the storm was in Tuscaloosa and it would be here in 15 minutes. And before I knew it, it was here."

He and his wife, along with their daughter and two grandchildren, survived by hiding under their front porch. Friends who did the same weren't so lucky — Stewart said he pulled out the bodies of two neighbors whose home was ripped off its foundation.

Samantha Nail surveyed the damage in the blue-collar subdivision of Pleasant Grove where hers was the only home still intact. The storm slammed heavy pickup trucks into ditches and obliterated tidy brick houses, leaving behind a mess of mattresses, electronics and children's toys scattered across a grassy plain where dozens used to live.

"We were in the bathroom holding on to each other and holding on to dear life," Nail said. "If it wasn't for our concrete walls, our home would be gone like the rest of them."

UPDATE:  A tornado expert is offering more details of the destructive force carried by the tornadoes that left at least 251 people dead in a half dozen southern states.

The expert at the National Weather Service's Storm Prediction Center in Oklahoma says some of the tornadoes were as wide as a mile, and likely packed a wallop that only 1 in 100 twisters ever bring.

People in hard-hit areas in Alabama and other states have been looking at what's left of their obliterated homes today. Nearby streets are filled with debris.

The mayor of Tuscaloosa, Ala., who flew over the area this morning, says some neighborhoods were "basically removed from the map." The city's emergency management building was destroyed. Authorities are using a stadium at the University of Alabama as a
command post.

The school has canceled final exams and postponed commencement from May until August.

UPDATE: Alabama's Emergency Management chief is urging people to stay away from the heavily storm-damaged areas of the state. Art Faulker says people need to give search and rescue crews room to work.

More than 130 people have been confirmed dead in the state and Gov. Robert Bentley expects that number to climb. Bentley says 2,000 national guard troops had been activated to help search devastated areas for people still missing.

UPDATE: In a neighborhood of Tuscaloosa, Ala., which took a direct hit from a tornado late yesterday, dozens of homes are without roofs, and household items are scattered all over
the ground.

Streets are impassable -- covered with trees, pieces of houses and cars with their windows blown out.

A medical resident at a Tuscaloosa hospital fled the hospital's parking deck when the wind started swirling. He says he looked back and "saw trees and stuff coming by."

Another doctor who was at the hospital when the tornado hit walked several blocks with his wife to get to their house, which was destroyed. A few houses away, he helped pull three students
from the rubble. One was dead and two were badly injured.

On the campus of the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, university officials say there doesn't appear to be significant damage.

Video of the tornado hitting the city of more than 83,000 was captured by a news camera mounted on a tower.

UPDATE: Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal is touring storm-ravaged areas in north Georgia and pledging state resources to help storm victims rebuild.

Ringgold Mayor Joe Barger says the city, one of the hardest hit areas of the state, suffered "a tremendous loss." Seven people have been confirmed dead and another 30 were injured.

Catoosa County Sheriff Phil Summers says authorities have closed all major roads to Ringgold "for safety and security" and to conduct the search and rescue operation.

City Manager Dan Wright says a majority of the community is without power. Last night's storms killed at least 13 in Georgia.

One trucker, whose rig was blown off Interstate 75, says he knew he was in "deep trouble" when he saw a building move across the
highway.

Deal has declared a state of emergency in 16 counties, and says he will seek an emergency declaration from the federal government.

PRESS RELEASE FROM THE RED CROSS: People in more than half the country are seeking help from the American Red Cross as a record tornado season continues to devastate communities and serious flooding looms in parts of the Midwest.

More than 1,100 people spent Tuesday night in Red Cross shelters as heavy rains, flooding and tornadoes forced them from their homes. These latest storms come on the heels of two weeks of deadly weather which has disrupted people's lives from North Dakota to the East Coast. Red Cross disaster teams are working around the clock in the affected areas, providing people with shelter, meals, counseling and supplies to help with clean-up efforts.

Lyle O'Neel, a local Red Cross disaster mental health volunteer with the American Red Cross Inland Northwest Chapter, has been working on the disaster relief operations in Alabama for the past 10 days.

Last night, O'Neel weathered severe storms in the area by seeking shelter in the stairwell of his hotel. Due to these new storms, O'Neel will be extending his volunteer service in Alabama so he can continue to work with disaster clients and help them cope with the emotional aftermath of the disaster.

There is a possibility that other local Red Cross volunteers may deploy to the Midwest to assist with disaster relief operations. I will keep you informed of any local deployments as they occur.

Please call Megan Snow, Communications Director, at 509-990-0969 with any questions.

How You Can Help

The Red Cross depends on financial donations to help people affected by disasters like these tornadoes. You can help by making a donation to support American Red Cross Disaster Relief.

Visit www.redcross.org, call 1-800-RED CROSS or text the word REDCROSS to 90999 to make a $10 donation. Contributions may also be sent to your local American Red Cross chapter or to the American Red Cross, P.O. Box 37243, Washington, DC 20013.

All American Red Cross disaster assistance is free, made possible by voluntary donations of time and money from the American people. You can help the victims of thousands of disasters across the country each year by making a financial gift to the American Red Cross, which enables the Red Cross to provide shelter, food, counseling and other assistance to victims of disaster.

 About the American Red Cross:

The American Red Cross shelters, feeds and provides emotional support to victims of disasters; supplies nearly half of the nation's blood; teaches lifesaving skills; provides international humanitarian aid; and supports military members and their families. The Red Cross is a charitable organization — not a government agency — and depends on volunteers and the generosity of the American public to perform its mission. For more information, please visit www.redcross.org or join our blog at http://blog.redcross.org.

 A special thank you to MSNBC for providing the photos for our slideshow

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