LAFAYETTE, Tenn. – County Mayor Shelvy Linville could only shake his head at the horrific toll left by a deadly series of tornadoes that pounded across the South.
"It really is unbelievable that Mother Nature can create that much devastation," he said Wednesday evening at his Macon County home. "We need your prayers."
Rebuilding has barely begun in this northern Tennessee community and in the others where dozens of tornadoes ripped across Arkansas, Mississippi, Tennessee, Kentucky and Alabama, killing at least 55 people and injuring hundreds more in the nation's deadliest set of twisters in more than two decades.
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"I'm surprised that I'm alive," said Telia Sorrells, 24, who survived one twister that left only parts of two walls standing in her home. A gash on her head required eight staples at a hospital to close.
Federal and state emergency teams poured into the hardest-hit areas, along with utility workers and insurance claims representatives.
President Bush, who said he called the governors of the affected states to offer support, plans to come to Tennessee on Friday. "Prayers can help and so can the government," Bush said.
Thirty-one people were killed in Tennessee, 13 in Arkansas, seven in Kentucky and four in Alabama, emergency officials said. It was one of the 15 worst tornado death tolls since 1950, and the nation's deadliest barrage of tornadoes since 76 people were killed in Pennsylvania and Ohio on May 31, 1985.
Among the most remarkable survival stories: in Castalian Springs, Tenn., a baby was discovered unscathed in a field across from a demolished post office. A bystander swaddled the crying child in his shirt. There was no word on the child's parents' fates.
"He had debris all over him, but there were no obvious signs of trauma," said Ken Weidner, Sumner County emergency management director.
The National Weather Service issued more than 1,000 tornado warnings from 3 p.m. Tuesday to 6 a.m. Wednesday in the 11-state area where the weather was heading. The Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Okla., put out an alert six days in advance.
There were no comprehensive estimates yet on damages, but the tornadoes' paths left behind flattened streets and treelines, shredded mobile homes, flipped-over tractor-trailers and trucks, and concrete floors where homes, garages and carports once stood.
Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen, who viewed the northern Tennessee damage by helicopter, said after his aerial tour: "It looks like the Lord took a Brillo pad and scrubbed the ground."
Weather conditions were ripe for tornadoes and forecasters were ready with warnings and in many hard-hit areas, sirens and TV warnings were credited with helping keep the death toll from being even worse.
In the mostly rural area of Lafayette, there are no tornado sirens. Linville, the county mayor, said he didn't think they would have made much difference because of the way the 23,000 residents are spread out.
"You don't really think it's going to hit you until you realize it's on top of you, then it's too late," he said.
Just outside town, Melissa Bryant watched as friends picked through the heavily damaged home where her 78-year-old mother Dorothy Collins survived in a bathroom.
"It's devastating and terrible," Bryant said. "But she's very lucky; she's alive."
The two-story garage was gone, and in a yard filled with debris, the bellows of a bull that neighbors said had been injured by a fallen tree could be heard from hundreds of yards away.
Students took cover in dormitory bathrooms as the storms closed in on Union University in Jackson, Tenn. More than 20 students at the Southern Baptist school were trapped behind wreckage and jammed doors after the dormitories came down around them.
With five minutes' warning from TV news reports, Nova and Ray Story huddled inside their home outside Lafayette and came out unscathed. But nearby, their uncle, Bill Clark, was injured in his toppled mobile home.
They put him in the bed of their pickup to take him to a hospital, and neighbors with chain saws tried to clear a path. What normally would have been a 30-minute drive to the hospital took well more than two hours because the roads were clogged with debris. Clark died on the way.
"He never had a chance," Nova Story said. "I looked him right in the eye and he died right there in front of me."
Sorrells, who with her mother and her mother's boyfriend filled garbage bags with belongings pulled from the rubble of her home Wednesday evening, said she was sitting on her couch watching storm coverage on television and talking with her mother by cell phone when the power abruptly went out.
"Something is hitting the house," she told her mother. Then, "It's here!"
The next thing she knew, she said, "I was looking up at sky."