By Today Weather
Photo:The tornado that struck Cullman, Ala., is seen in this image taken from WVTM video.
Tuscaloosa, Birmingham suburbs see damage from huge tornado
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Tornadoes killed dozens of people across Alabama on Wednesday afternoon and evening as a violent storm system left destruction and death across a large swath of the South.
Two major cities, Tuscaloosa and Birmingham, were hit hard. Gov. Robert Bentley mobilized 1,400 National Guardsmen to help in rescue operations.
The system of heavy winds, rain and tornadoes began late Tuesday and had left at least 17 dead in Arkansas, Tennessee, Louisiana and Mississippi by Wednesday morning.
Then the latest round of storms hit Alabama on Wednesday afternoon and evening, pushing the death toll much higher, though the count in that state was uncertain.
A giant tornado touched down near the Mississippi state line, then spent more than two hours on the ground tracking northeast to Tuscaloosa and on past Birmingham.
In Tuscaloosa, the mayor said at least 15 people were killed and “well over 100″ injured.
Local TV channels showed a massive black cloud, estimated at a mile wide, moving through Tuscaloosa, then through Birmingham’s northern suburbs and just missing the airport.
At least 10 people were confirmed dead in the towns of Concord and Pleasant Grove near Birmingham, according to Jefferson County Emergency Management officials. Injuries and structural damage were widespread there and in other suburbs of Birmingham, which has a metro population of 1 million.
At least 24 people were killed elsewhere in Alabama, emergency officials said. Damage was reported from Huntsville in the northern part of the state, south in Montgomery.
In Tuscaloosa, home to the University of Alabama, cars were tossed along a commercial street and dozens of stores were destroyed or damaged. Ambulances were seen rushing to the area after the storm passed. Video taken at the university showed a massive funnel cloud (on this page) flinging huge pieces of debris through the air.
News footage showed paramedics lifting a child out of a flattened home there, with many neighboring buildings in the city of more than 77,000 also reduced to rubble.
“It looks like somebody came through with a huge ax and cut the top off of everything. Just a big blade through that whole area,” resident David Ikard was quoted as saying by Alabama Live. “That area is just total devastation.”
Another resident, Phil Owen, said only one store was left standing at a shopping center. “Big Lots, Full Moon Barbecue. Piles of garbage where those places were,” he said. “Shell gas station across the street — all that’s standing is the frame of the store.”
“Please pray for us,” Tuscaloosa Mayor Walter Maddox said on The Weather Channel as crews fanned out to search for victims in the city of nearly 100,000.
As the night progressed, more tornadoes and severe thunderstorms were tracking northeast, roughly paralleling the line of the most devastating storm.
Earlier in the day, in northwest Alabama near the Mississippi state line, the small town of Red Bay was especially hard hit by a tornado, NBC station WAFF of Huntsville reported. The station said dozens of people were unaccounted for.
Just to the east in Cullman, Ala., which is north of the track of the tornado that hit Tuscaloosa and Birmingham, officials said they saw a twister tear through the downtown area, destroying or damaging most buildings along the main street, including the courthouse and a church. One person was reported killed in the area.
People inside City Hall took shelter in a vault, Mayor Max Towson said. Crews were out looking for any victims and surveying the damage, he added.
Three nuclear reactors at the Browns Ferry plant west of Huntsville, Ala., were shut down Wednesday after losing power, and 11 high-voltage power lines were knocked out by the storms, the Tennessee Valley Authority and regulators said.
At least six people had been reported killed in Alabama by early Wednesday.
The overall system also reportedly spawned a tornado in Quantico, Va., Wednesday evening.
The National Weather Service there was a high risk for severe weather into Wednesday night. The greatest threat for new tornadoes was in northern Alabama, northwest Georgia, eastern Mississippi and southern Tennessee, weather.com reported.
Below is a look at other states hit by the severe weather overnight and into Wednesday morning.
Mississippi:The Mississippi Emergency Management Agency said the state’s death toll from violent storms Tuesday and early Wednesday is now 11.
Jeff Rent, a spokesman for the agency confirmed the number Wednesday night and said there have been more than 40 injuries. Meanwhile, authorities said a possible tornado heavily damaged much of the town of Smithville in Monroe County.