Tornadoes Bring Death, Destruction Across South
TUPELO, Mississippi - A dangerous storm system that spawned a chain of deadly tornadoes over three days flattened homes and businesses, forced frightened residents in more than half a dozen states to take cover and left tens of thousands in the dark Tuesday morning.
As the storms hopscotched across a large swatch of the U.S., the overall death toll was at least 29, with 12 killed in the South on Monday and 17 in the central U.S. on Sunday.
On Tuesday morning, many woke to sirens, tornado warnings, damaged property and downed trees. Forecasts showed Georgia as the next likely target, with 89 counties under a tornado watch until 11 a.m. Alabama, Mississippi and Tennessee were hit with the brunt of the storm Monday.
Tornado watches were posted Tuesday morning for northern and central Georgia, including the Atlanta metropolitan area, reports CBS Atlanta affiliate WGCL-TV.
Extremely severe weather was still moving through the Birmingham, Ala. area early Tuesday, according to CBS Birmingham affiliate WIAT-TV, but activity slackened as the system moved east.
Tens of thousands of customers were without power in Alabama and Mississippi, as well as Kentucky, which did not report tornadoes but was slammed with severe storms.
Thousands more hunkered down in basements and shelters as The National Weather Service issued watches and warnings for more tornadoes throughout the night in Alabama.
The system is the latest onslaught of severe weather a day after a half-mile-wide tornado carved an 80-mile path of destruction through the suburbs of Little Rock, Ark., killing at least 15. Tornadoes or severe storms also killed one person each in Oklahoma and Iowa on Sunday.
In southern Tennessee, two people were killed in a home when a suspected tornado hit Monday night, Lincoln County Emergency Management Director Mike Hall said. The winds destroyed several other homes as well as a middle school in the county that borders Alabama, Hall said.
In northern Alabama, the coroner's office confirmed two deaths Monday in a twister that caused extensive damage west of the city of Athens, said Limestone County Emergency Director Rita White. White said more victims could be trapped in the wreckage of damaged buildings, but rescuers could not reach some areas because of downed power lines.
Separately, Limestone Commissioner Bill Latimer said he received reports of four deaths in the county from one of his workers. Neither the governor's office nor state emergency officials could immediately confirm those deaths.
Another death in Alabama, in Tuscaloosa, was confirmed to CBS News early Tuesday.
Six people died in Winston County, Miss., on Monday, including a woman who perished in the day care center she owned in Louisville, county Coroner Scott Gregory told The Associated Press late Monday. Louisville is the county seat and home to about 6,600 people. County officials confirmed the total of six to CBS News early Tuesday.
It was unclear if any children were in the day care center at the time, said William McCully, acting spokesman for the Winston County Emergency Management Agency.
Earlier Monday, emergency officials attending a news conference with Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant said seven people had been killed statewide. State Director of Health Protection Jim Craig said officials were working with coroners to confirm the total. It was unclear if the deaths in Winston County were included in that tally.
One of the deaths in Mississippi involved a woman who was killed when her car either hydroplaned or was blown off a road during the storm in Verona, south of Tupelo, said Lee County Coroner Carolyn Gillentine Green.
Along Mississippi Highway 397 on the eastern edge of Louisville early Tuesday, firefighters could be seen picking through the remains of an unidentified number of pulverized mobile homes. Lt. Brian Arnett of the Starkville Fire Department said they were searching for three people who remained unaccounted for.
About 100 yards away, 20 firefighters linked hands and waded through an area where woodframe homes had been heavily damaged.
Trees in Louisville had been snapped in half and stripped of their branches, while sheet metal had twisted itself around road signs and tree trunks. Rescue workers stepped gingerly over downed power lines.
Mississippi Republican Sen. Giles Ward huddled in a bathroom with his wife, four other family members and their 19-year-old dog Monday as a tornado destroyed his two-story brick house and flipped his son-in-law's SUV upside down onto the patio in Louisville.
"For about 30 seconds, it was unbelievable," Ward said. "It's about as awful as anything we've gone through."
He estimated that 30 houses in his neighborhood, Jordan Circle, were either destroyed or heavily damaged. After the storm had passed, Ward and his family went to a neighbor's home where 19 people had waited out the tornado in a basement. He said six people were reported trapped in a basement in another home in the subdivision.
The tornado in Louisville also caused water damage and carved holes in the roof of the Winston Medical Center, according to an Associated Press reporter at the center. There were about 15 patients in hospital rooms and eight or nine in the emergency room, where evacuations were under way.
"We thought we were going to be OK then a guy came in and said, 'It's here right now,'" said Dr. Michael Henry, head of the emergency room. "Then boom ... it blew through."
In Tupelo, Miss., a community of about 35,000 in northeastern Mississippi, every building in a two-block area south of U.S. Highway 78 had suffered damage, officials told a reporter on the scene. Some buildings had their roofs sheared off, while power lines had been knocked down completely or bent at 45-degree angles. Road crews were using heavy machinery to clear off other streets.
The Northeast Mississippi Medical Center in Tupelo had received 30 patients as of Monday night, four of whom were being admitted with non-life-threatening injuries, said center spokeswoman Deborah Pugh. Pugh said the other 26 patients were treated for minor injuries and released.
Bryant declared a state of emergency Monday in advance of the storms, which sent emergency officials rushing to put plans in place.
With the wind howling outside and rain blowing sideways, Monica Foster rode out a tornado warning with her two daughters, ages 10 and 12, inside a gas station near Fayette, Ala. One of the girls cried as the three huddled with a station employee in a storage area beside a walk-in cooler.
Foster, who was returning home to Lynn on rural roads after a funeral in Tuscaloosa, said she typically would have kept driving through the deluge.
"I wouldn't have pulled in if I didn't have the two girls," she said.
The threat of dangerous weather jangled nerves a day after the three-year anniversary of a historic outbreak of more than 60 tornadoes that killed more than 250 people across Alabama on April 27, 2011.