A BARRAGE of tornados that killed more than 300 people and destroyed entire neighbourhoods across the southern states of the US has been branded a national catastrophe.
US authorities continued their search among the ruins of homes and other buildings yesterday after thousands of people were injured across six states.
The hardest-hit state was Alabama, where at least 241 were killed as storms raged through heavily populated areas between its largest city, Birmingham, and Tuscaloosa.
Alabama Governor Robert Bentley described his state as “a major, major disaster” after an inspection of the worst-affected areas by helicopter.
“The last 20 hours have been a nightmare for this community, and, indeed, it is a very dark hour,” Tuscaloosa Mayor Walter Maddox said. “Infrastructure has been absolutely devastated. When you look at this path of destruction, likely five to seven miles (eight to 11km) long and half a mile to a mile wide, I don’t know how anyone survived.”
Referring to the town where he has lived his whole life, he added: “There are parts of this city I don’t recognise.”
The tornados, considered the worst since 1974, swept through southern states late on Wednesday, US time. Some areas that had already been ravaged by powerful storms earlier in the week were struck again.
President Barack Obama will travel to Alabama today to tour the worst-affected areas after signing an emergency declaration for the state that allows federal aid to help people whose homes and businesses were lost.
Speaking at the White House, Mr Obama said the storms were a catastrophe for the US and the loss of life had been heart-wrenching, especially in Alabama.
“In a matter of hours, these deadly tornados, some of the worst we have seen in decades, took mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, even entire communities,” the President said.
Mr Obama said he wanted survivors of the catastrophe to know that the federal government would stand with them to rebuild.
Survivors who emerged safely from basements in their homes yesterday after storms had passed to witness widespread wreckage and debris were stunned after their once vibrant neighbourhoods with tree-lined streets had been flattened.
In the Birmingham suburb of Pleasant Grove, one survivor whose house was wrecked, Sharon Blue, 57, was reportedly spared after she huddled in her laundry clutching her two dogs. “I thought the whole house was just going to take off,” she said. “It was like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz.
In Coaling, Alabama, firefighter Reginald Epps and his wife tried to gather their three boys — aged eight, six and four — as the storm approached their home. They got the two youngest, but before they were able to get R.J., the walls of their house were sucked outward and R.J. was swept out into the storm. The parents dropped on the floor, covering their two younger boys and praying. A few minutes later, R.J. walked back into what had been their house. “I went up into the air,” the eight-year-old boy said.
John De Block, a warning co-ordination meteorologist in Birmingham, said the towns of Hackleburg and Dadeville had taken direct hits.
There were reports that 90 per cent of Hackleburg had been destroyed and whole neighbourhoods were barely recognisable.
Mr De Block had ridden out the storm at his in-laws’ storm shelter. “It’s rather humbling, sitting there listening to the radio, hearing your own colleagues issue a tornado warning for the street you’re living on,” he said.
Birmingham also sustained major damage. “It looks like a war zone. All I want to do is get out,” said one anxious elderly woman as she hauled a large suitcase, helped by male friends, down a road strewn with piles of debris.
Some houses had been cleaved in half by toppled trees, others were completely levelled, leaving residents wandering the streets dazed and confused.
The storms scattered belongings up to 80km away, caused a nuclear power plant to use back-up generators, and even forced the evacuation of a National Weather Service office.
States of emergency have been declared in Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, Missouri, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Virginia, and governors called out the National Guard to help with rescue and clean-up operations.
The region was “hit and hit and hit again”, said Melissa McDonald, of the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency.