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 storm hopscotched across a large swatch of the U.S., the overall death toll was at least 28, with 11 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.
In Mississippi, Republican state Sen. Giles Ward huddled in a bathroom with his wife, four other family members and their 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.”
The 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.
The storm even sent staff at a TV news station running for cover. NBC affiliate WTVA-TV chief meteorologist Matt Laubhan in Tupelo, Miss., was reporting live on the weather around 3 p.m. when he realized the twister was coming close enough that maybe he and his staff should abandon the television studio.
“This is a tornado ripping through the city of Tupelo as we speak. And this could be deadly,” he said in a video widely tweeted and broadcast on YouTube.
Moments later he adds, “A damaging tornado. On the ground. Right now.”
The video then shows Laubhan peeking in from the side to see if he is still live on the air before yelling to staff off-camera to get down in the basement. “Basement, now!” he yells, before disappearing off camera himself.
Later, the station tweeted, “We are safe here.”
Weather satellites showed tumultuous clouds arcing across much of the South over the course of the day Monday.
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.
Six people died in Winston County, Miss., on Monday, including a woman who perished in the day care centre 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.
It was unclear if any children were in the day care centre 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.
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.
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 were 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.
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 centre. There were about 15 patients in hospital rooms and eight or nine in the emergency room, where evacuations were underway.
“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.”
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.
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.
Numerous watches and warnings were still active in Alabama, with forecasters warning the severe weather could continue all night.
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 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 centre 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.
Jeff Amy reported from Louisville, Miss. Associated Press writers Jack Elliott Jr. and Emily Wagster Pettus in Jackson, Miss; Janet McConnaughey in New Orleans; Jay Reeves in Birmingham, Ala.; AP Photographer Butch Dill in Fayette, Ala.; Phillip Lucas in Atlanta; Russ Bynum in Savannah, Ga., contributed to this report.