TUPELO, Miss. (CBS Atlanta/AP) — 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.
As the storm hopscotched across a large swath of the U.S., the overall death toll was more than 30, killed Monday and Sunday in a band stretching from Oklahoma to Alabama. Forecasts showed the storm continuing to threaten residents in the Deep South Tuesday afternoon and evening, with another round of howling winds, pounding rain, flash flooding and tornado conditions possible.
Some awoke Tuesday to find their loved ones missing and their homes pulverized. In Louisville, a hardscrabble logging town hit by one of the storm’s twisters, firefighters picked through the remains of mobile homes, and twenty of them linked hands to wade through debris. Rescue workers stepped gingerly over downed power lines and trees that were snapped in half and stripped of branches.
With water and roof damage, the small local hospital’s emergency room was evacuated Monday.
“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 ER. “Then boom … it blew through.”
Just east of the hospital, a woman died at the daycare center she’d run for seven years, according to the county coroner. One seriously injured child was evacuated from the center, said state Rep. Michael Evans, D-Louisville, who is acting as a liaison for the county. The child’s condition was not known Tuesday. Evans said authorities don’t think any other children were in the center during the storm.
“No other parents have shown up to say, ‘My child was at the daycare.’ That’s why we think the day care is fine,” Evans said.
In Tupelo, crews turned from search-and-rescue efforts to cleanup in parts of the northeastern Mississippi community Tuesday. The buzzing sound of chain saws cut through the otherwise still, hazy morning. Massive oak trees, knocked over like children’s toys, blocked some roads.
Neighbors helped one other cut away limbs. Residents, taken aback by the damage, said they prayed that more storms wouldn’t hit the city later Tuesday.
Pam Montgomery, 54, walked with her gray Scottish terrier, Ava, in the parking lot of St. Luke’s United Methodist church in her neighborhood. “This does not even look like a place that I’m familiar with right now,” Montgomery said. “You look down some of the streets and it doesn’t even look like there is a street.”
Abby Tucker, 27, described the feeling as surreal.
“You see this in movies,” she said. “You don’t see it in your own backyard.”
The storm even sent staff at a TV news station running for cover. NBC affiliate WTVA-TV chief meteorologist Matt Laubhan in Tupelo 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.”
In Kimberly, Ala., about 20 miles north of Birmingham, a suspected tornado hit at a crossroads before midnight Monday, tearing the A-shaped roof off the town’s Church of God. On Tuesday morning, the roof sat in a solid piece beside the red brick church.
Across the street, the cinderblock walls from an old fishing supply store were scattered around the gravel parking lot. The building’s metal frame remained. Down the road, the fire department was flattened.
Tim Armstrong picked up pieces of splintered trees in his backyard. Armstrong, his wife and their two young daughters were home when the storm struck. He said they were listening to weather reports on television and heard an all-clear for their area.
“Three minutes later my mother-in-law calls, says there’s a tornado in Morris,” a nearby town, Armstrong said. “The power went out, and we went running to the middle of the house.”
They heard the wind roaring and glass shattering as a tree flew through their front door. “Once I heard that, I knew something was pretty wrong. It was fast. It was so fast.”
The whole thing was over a minute later, he said.
In northern Alabama, the coroner’s office confirmed two deaths in a twister that caused extensive damage west of the city of Athens, Limestone County Emergency Director Rita White. In Tuscaloosa, officials said a University of Alabama student died when he took shelter in the basement of a home near campus and a retaining wall collapsed on him.
The threat of dangerous weather jangled nerves a day after the third anniversary of a historic outbreak of more than 60 tornadoes that killed more than 250 people across Alabama on April 27, 2011.
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.
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.
The storm 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.
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