By Jeff Amy And Adrian Sainz Associated Press
LOUISVILLE, Miss. — 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 move east Tuesday, with Georgia and Alabama residents waking to sirens, howling wind and pounding rain.
Others found their loved ones missing and their homes pulverized. Along Mississippi Highway 397 on the eastern edge of Louisville, firefighters picked through the remains of mobile homes, searching for three people unaccounted for after a tornado tore through. Twenty firefighters linked hands and waded through an area where wood frame homes had also been heavily damaged. Rescue workers stepped gingerly over downed power lines and trees that were snapped in half and stripped of branches.
The Louisville tornado caused water damage and carved holes in the roof of the Winston Medical Center. The 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 emergency room. “Then boom … it blew through.”
Republican state Sen. Giles Ward huddled in a bathroom with his wife, four other family members and their dog as the tornado destroyed his two-story brick house in Louisville and flipped his son-in-law’s SUV upside down onto the patio.
“For about 30 seconds, it was unbelievable,” Ward said. “It’s about as awful as anything we’ve gone through.”
Officials said seven people died in Winston County, where Louisville is the county seat, with about 6,600 people. Two others were reported dead, separately, in Mississippi when their vehicles were blown off roadways.
In Winston County, one of the victims was a woman who died in the day care center she owned in Louisville, county Coroner Scott Gregory said. Authorities were returning to the center Tuesday.
One seriously injured child was evacuated, 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, a community of about 35,000 in northeastern Mississippi, every building in a two-block area was damaged, officials on the scene said.
On Tuesday morning, a blanket of fog hung over the city as authorities switched from a search-and-rescue mission to cleanup duties.
In one residential neighborhood, destroyed homes sat steps away from those left unscathed. Crews cleared trees tangled with power lines, fixed cracked roadway signs and removed debris from streets.
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.