Dozens dead as storms blast across Midwest, South

2:52 PM, Mar 4, 2012   |    comments
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Murphy, N.C. (Courtesy William Wright)

(CNN) -- A string of vicious storms swept eastward Saturday, bringing new misery to parts of the South and leaving behind towns reeling from loss of life and property.

PHOTOS | Severe storms slam South

Rescuers continued to search for survivors in obliterated communities throughout the South and Midwest. The tornado outbreak, unusual for this time of year, killed at least 31 people.
Saturday began with large swaths of the region still battered by heavy rain and under tornado watches -- and a real fear of the death toll rising.

Of the 31 victims, 14 were in Indiana, 13 in Kentucky, three in Ohio and one in Alabama. Authorities had reported a total of 36 deaths but reduced the number later Saturday.

RELATED | Heavy storms cross metro Atlanta

LOCAL STORM PHOTOS | The aftermath

Parts of western Florida, southern Georgia, southern Alabama and eastern South Carolina remained under tornado watch. Authorities issued a tornado warning along the Georgia-Florida border. Meteorologists warned drivers along Interstate 10 in the Florida Panhandle to brace for severe rain and winds.

Back-to-back storm waves wove a path of destruction all the way from Alabama, where they began their treacherous march, into Tennessee and on to Indiana and Ohio.

Piles of debris took the place of well-built homes. High winds toppled tall trees. Bright yellow school buses smashed into buildings. Garbage bins and wooden beams flew through the air with the force of a jet airliner.

Churches turned into shelters and thousands of people began a weekend unnerved by nature's fury.

National Weather Service meteorologist John Gordon described the weather as crazy.

"It's just nuts right here," he said during the height of the storms.
In hard-hit Henryville, Indiana, rescuers combed for survivors after a tornado swept through the town 20 miles north of Louisville, leveling neighborhoods, sending school buses into buildings and demolishing businesses.

People driving on Indiana Highway 60 got a perfect view of the monster twister barreling toward Henryville.

"What we know is we've got complete destruction. We're going to deal with it the best we can," Sgt. Jerry Goodwin of the Indiana State Police told CNN affiliate WISH-TV late Friday. "We're going to come together, and we're going to get it done."

At St. Francis Xavier Church, which was serving as a meeting and reunion point for families in Henryville, dozens waited for news of loved ones as rescue crews combed through debris.

Amid the mounting reports of death and destruction, there was some good news.

A 2-year-old girl was found alive, alone and injured in a field in Salem, about 20 miles south of Henrysville, said Maj. Chuck Adams, a sheriff's department spokesman.

She was later identified and her family notified.

At Henryville's high school and elementary school, staff huddled in the office area with about 40 students who had not been able to go home and prayed.

"It's a blessing. We praise God" that no one was hurt, said Glenn Riggs, the elementary school principal.

But more often than not, the news in hard-hit areas was of devastating loss.

It was unclear how many people were missing in Henryville, as well as the towns of Chelsea, Paynesville and Marysville -- all hit by tornadoes -- because of the sheer amount of devastation, Adams said.

"Marysville is almost completely gone," Adams told CNN affiliate WHAS-TV, out of Louisville, Kentucky.

Authorities spray-painted a yellow "X" on what remained of the homes in Marysville. In some cases, it was just wooden planks.
In Chelsea, east of Henryville, Steve Kloepfer told CNN affiliate WHAS that the bodies of his aunt and uncle, Terry and Carol Jackson, and their 4-year-old grandchild were discovered in a field, covered in debris.

His own home, he said, was also gone.

"We are just checking and double checking to make sure that we don't have any other victims out there who need rescuing," Jefferson County Sheriff John Wallace told WHAS.

Roughly 250 National Guard troops have been called in to provide aid and security in Henrysville, Marysville and elsewhere, said Sgt. First Class Tina Eichenour.

In Kentucky, similar scenes played out as Gov. Steve Beshear declared a statewide emergency and ordered the deployment of 50 National Guard troops to join a 12-person team searching for survivors in Morgan County after authorities reportedly lost touch with the town of West Liberty.

Shawn Harley, from the National Weather Service, said people were trapped in damaged buildings in West Liberty after a tornado. There was no immediate word on casualties as a result and authorities lost contact with the town, said Chuck Wolfe, a spokesman for the Kentucky Emergency Management Agency.
Wolfe said officials believe the town "got hit pretty heavily."

In Tennessee, there were reports of possible tornado touchdowns in nine counties, according to Jeremy Heidt, the state's emergency management spokesman. At least 29 people were injured across the state, said Dean Flener, also with TEMA.

The storms moved through northern Georgia late Friday. A tornado was believed to have struck north Georgia's Paulding County, damaging two elementary schools, a small local airfield and an undetermined number of homes, said Ashley Henson, a sheriff's spokesman.

Aerial images showed roofs ripped off houses, exposing bedrooms, kitchens and garages.

"Thank goodness there were actually no injuries or fatalities reported in the Paulding County area," Henson said. "That is amazing to me, looking at some of this damage."

Rescue crews in Haralson County worked for some two hours to free a man trapped in his collapsed home, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported. The man suffered a broken leg.

The apparent tornado that blew through Paulding County about 8:35 p.m. Friday caused extensive damage to hangars and planes at the Paulding Northwest Atlanta Airport.

According to airport manager Blake Swafford, about 20 of the 23 planes that were at the airport off U.S. 278 Friday night were destroyed. Hangars were also heavily damaged, with large pieces of metal blown into the tops of nearby trees.

In Charlotte, North Carolina, at least three people were injured, said Capt. Rob Brisley of the fire department.

In Ohio, a man in his 50s died inside his mobile home when the storms rolled through Bethel, southeast of Cincinnati, Clermont County officials said in a news release.

Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley said daylight revealed the extent of the damage Saturday and emergency crews were fanned out in several communities.

"Recovering from another round of storms will be a long-term process," he said. "That process is always difficult. But I have seen the determination of our people, and we will rebuild and recover together. Our prayers are with every person who has been affected.

In West Liberty, a terrifying video showed a tornado forming in the sky. There was no funnel yet, just a mass of thick, dark cloud beginning to turn in cyclonic manner.

In the video, the voice of a resident can be heard calling God:"Take this stuff away from us, Lord."


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