Deadly storm systems cause statewide destruction
Update: As of 9:12 p.m., the Alabama Emergency Management Agency had confirmed 204 dead throughout the state. At least 296 have died across seven Southern states.
Update: Gov. Robert Bentley announced that the death toll in the state of Alabama has risen to 194, as of 3:44 p.m. Thursday. At least 280 deaths have been confirmed across the South in Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, Tennessee and Virginia.
At least 131 people have been confirmed dead in Alabama after a series of tornadoes ravaged six Southern states Wednesday. More than 220 were killed across the South, but the death toll is expected to continue rising as rescue crews sift through the rubble.
According to state emergency officials, DeKalb and Franklin counties, both in north Alabama, suffered the most fatalities, with 30 and 18 deaths, respectively.
The high death tolls can be partially attributed to the tornadoes' path through the state's most heavily populated cities, including Tuscaloosa, Birmingham and Huntsville. The storms also inflicted “massive destruction of property” across the state, Gov. Robert Bentley said Thursday.
Severe weather began in the Birmingham area around 5:30 a.m. Wednesday, as 100 mph winds downed trees and left thousands without power.
The most destructive tornado first touched down in Tuscaloosa, demolishing houses and businesses alike. The same supercell system hit the metro Birmingham area around 6 p.m., where at least 26 people were confirmed dead as of late Wednesday – 13 in Walker County, 11 in Jefferson County and two in St. Clair County.
More than 200 people affected by the storms have taken shelter at Boutwell Auditorium in downtown Birmingham.
The storms desolated hundreds of homes in neighborhoods throughout the Birmingham area, including Pratt City, Concord, Hueytown and Forestdale.
“If you've seen the damage on the main streets in Tuscaloosa, it's twice as bad in Pratt City,” said Demetrius Howard, who visited the city early Thursday in an attempt to help its residents. “I didn't stay down there long; I couldn't take it. I saw a guy who had been hit by a power line that got stuck to his leg. There were bodies in the middle of the road, and all they could do was put sheets over them. The coroner couldn't even get them out of the street. You can talk about it, but you can never really describe it.”
According to Emergency Management Agency authorities in Birmingham, storm damage in Jefferson County exceeds that of the April 8, 1998, tornado that resulted in 32 deaths and 261 injuries.
Six tornadoes touched down in Madison County throughout the day Wednesday. The Madison County Emergency Management Agency announced this morning that seven people were confirmed dead. About 50 people were sent to Huntsville Hospital with critical injuries.
The Browns Ferry nuclear power plant about 30 miles west of Huntsville lost offsite power. The plant, owned by the Tennessee Valley Authority, used seven diesel generators to power the plant's three units.
Madison County, which includes the city of Huntsville, remains without power.
“My dad saw a tornado from his truck while on the job,” said Justin Cloud, a graduate student from Scottsboro, Ala. “He saw it and thought it was coming toward him, but it wasn't. My mom was driving and a piece of debris almost hit her car after a while, so she quickly drove back home. My brother was at home and heard the tornado. He said it sounded like a freight train. I haven't heard anything else about Scottsboro, but I know that area is bad—Huntsville and Scottsboro.”
Tornadoes also struck the city of Cullman, where the downtown business district was leveled and so far two have been confirmed dead.
“My house in Cullman is not damaged, but there is no power in Cullman,” said Melissa Mills, a senior whose family lives in Cullman. “It is completely dead. Every restaurant and business is closed. People are trying to eat what they can and get what they can... My mom and 17-year-old sister were trapped in Food World when the tornado hit, and they took them into the meat freezer. The whole downtown is destroyed. I couldn't recognize the town that I've lived in my whole life.”
President Barack Obama approved Gov. Robert Bentley's request for emergency federal assistance, and about 2,000 Alabama National Guard soldiers have been deployed throughout the state.
Troops were expected on the ground early this morning to provide assistance with search and rescue efforts, remove debris and aid local law enforcement agencies. Counties requesting assistance from the National Guard include Cullman, Jefferson, Lawrence, Limestone, Marshall and Tuscaloosa counties.
Karissa Bursch contributed to this report.