Tornado slams heart of city in Alabama, leaving ruins

BIRMINGHAM, ALA.-A deadly tornado stretching a mile wide tore through downtown Tuscaloosa, Ala., on Wednesday evening, destroying homes and buildings and bringing further damage to a region already battered by storms.

Across the state, at least 25 people were killed by storms on Wednesday alone, said Valerie Hayes, a spokeswoman for the Alabama Emergency Management Agency. But that number did not include any deaths from Tuscaloosa, where 15 people were confirmed dead by the mayor’s office and 100 were said to be injured, The Tuscaloosa News reported. Earlier in the day, with the damage spreading and the death toll rising, Gov. Robert Bentley declared a state of emergency.

The tornado, one of several that struck across Alabama throughout the day, ripped through the city after 5 p.m. on a northwest path, veering past a major medical centre, a high school and the campus of the University of Alabama. The extent of the damage was unclear Wednesday evening, but officials confirmed that at least one person was dead, and they said they feared the toll could rise as emergency crews swept across the city.

Many parts of Alabama had been on a tornado watch throughout the day, prompting schools, government offices and businesses to shut their doors early or remain closed for the entire day, Mayor Walter Maddox said in an interview Wednesday evening, as he prepared to leave his office to assess the damage.

“I believe at the end of the day that will have saved many lives,” he said of the emergency measures. “We have so many reports of damage across the city. We do believe it to be significant.”

Mark Kelly, a spokesman for the Jefferson County Emergency Management Office, said the storm had picked up speed as it barreled out of Tuscaloosa and headed for the western part of the county, passing north of downtown Birmingham. He said that he had gotten reports of roofs torn from homes, people trapped in buildings, and power lines strewn across interstate roads, but that crews were just beginning to respond.

The damage from the tornado was made worse by earlier storms, which left the ground so soaked that instead of the winds just snapping trees and branches, they uprooted entire trees and tossed them onto power lines, said Michael Sznajderman, a spokesman for the Alabama Power Company.

He said at least 335,000 customers were without power, and with more storms on the way, “the number of outages could be as high as what we saw with Hurricane Ivan or Hurricane Katrina.

“It has already surpassed Hurricanes Dennis and Frederick,” he said. “We have line crews on the way from as far away as Illinois to assist in the recovery.”

Power losses were widespread across the University of Alabama, where many students were holed up after the tornado swept just south of the campus. Emily Crawford, a third-year student at the law school, said she had been preparing for an end-of-semester exam when the tornado swirled by. By nightfall she was still at the law school, which had become a refuge for scores of students, many of whom spoke of devastation in their neighborhoods worse than they had seen reported from Hurricane Katrina.

“It is surreal,” Crawford said. “People are coming up to the law school because they don’t have anywhere else to go. The school is sending buses into town to pick up students and bring them back to campus so they have somewhere safe to stay.”

The tornado was only the latest in a series that have struck the southern United States this week. At least 19 people have died as severe storms touched off tornadoes and caused heavy rains and flooding in an area stretching from Texas to Georgia, officials said Wednesday.

 By Wednesday, the storms, which started Monday evening, had also left more than 50,000 people without power from East Texas to Memphis and destroyed scores of homes as the system moved east into Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia.

The storms are expected to weaken before moving into the Carolinas and up the Eastern Seaboard on Thursday and Friday, according to the National Weather Service.

“Folks in the South should be getting some relief,” said Tom Bradshaw, a meteorologist with the service.

At least 10 people died in Arkansas in the storms, five in Mississippi and four in Alabama, officials said.

 One of the victims was a Louisiana police officer who died Tuesday night in Mississippi on a camping trip after he was struck by a tree limb ripped off by high winds, emergency officials in Mississippi said. The officer’s name has not yet been released.

By Wednesday afternoon, Arkansas and Alabama had declared states of emergency after scores of buildings suffered significant damage, including many that had their roofs sheared off.

Wind speeds have reached 135 mph, and mobile homes have been tossed about like toys, Bradshaw said. Accompanying rains and flash flooding have hit northern Arkansas especially hard, killing at least six people since Monday. Some parts of northern Arkansas have received 20 inches of rain during the past four days.

On Wednesday, a levee on the Black River in northeastern Arkansas failed, flooding local highways but causing no fatalities, officials said.

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