PLEASANT GROVE, Ala. – Dozens of tornadoes spawned by a powerful storm system wiped out neighborhoods across a wide swath of the South, killing at least 201 people in the deadliest outbreak in nearly 40 years, and officials said Thursday they expected the death toll to rise.
Alabama's state emergency management agency said it had confirmed 131 deaths, while there were 32 in Mississippi, 16 in Tennessee, 13 in Georgia, eight in Virginia and one in Kentucky.
The National Weather Service's Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Okla., said it received 137 tornado reports around the regions into Wednesday night.
"We were in the bathroom holding on to each other and holding on to dear life," said Samantha Nail, who lives in a blue-collar subdivision in the Birmingham suburb of Pleasant Grove where the storm slammed heavy pickup trucks into ditches and obliterated tidy brick houses, leaving behind a mess of mattresses, electronics and children's toys scattered across a grassy plain where dozens used to live. "If it wasn't for our concrete walls, our home would be gone like the rest of them."
Dave Imy, a meteorologist with the prediction service, said the deaths were the most in a tornado outbreak since 1974, when 315 people died.
In Alabama, where as many as a million people were without power, Gov. Robert Bentley said 2,000 national guard troops had been activated and were helping to search devastated areas for people still missing. He said the National Weather Service and forecasters did a good job of alerting people, but there is only so much that can be done to deal with powerful tornadoes a mile wide.
One of the hardest-hit areas was Tuscaloosa, a city of more than 83,000 and home to the University of Alabama. A massive tornado, caught on video by a news camera on a tower, barreled through late Wednesday afternoon, leveling the city.
"When I looked back, I just saw trees and stuff coming by," said Mike Whitt, a resident at DCH Regional Medical Center who ran from the hospital's parking deck when the wind started swirling and he heard a roar.
On Thursday morning, he walked through the neighborhood next to the hospital, home to a mix of students and townspeople, looking at dozens of homes without roofs. Household items were scattered all over the ground — a drum, running shoes, insulation, towels, and a shampoo bottle. Streets were impassable, the pavement strewn with trees, pieces of houses and cars with their windows blown out.
Dr. David Hinson was working at the hospital when the tornado hit. He and his wife had to walk several blocks to get to their house, which was destroyed. Several houses down, he helped pull three students from the rubble. One was dead and two were badly injured. He and others used pieces of debris as makeshift stretchers to carry them to an ambulance.
"We just did the best we could to get them out and get them stabilized and get them to help," he said. "I don't know what happened to them."
The storm system spread destruction from Texas to New York, where dozens of roads were flooded or washed out.
The governors of Alabama, Mississippi and Georgia each issued emergency declarations for parts of their states.
President Barack Obama said he had spoken with Bentley and approved his request for emergency federal assistance.
"Our hearts go out to all those who have been affected by this devastation, and we commend the heroic efforts of those who have been working tirelessly to respond to this disaster," Obama said in a statement.
Around Tuscaloosa, traffic was snarled by downed trees and power lines, and some drivers abandoned their cars in medians.
"What we faced today was massive damage on a scale we have not seen in Tuscaloosa in quite some time," Mayor Walter Maddox said Wednesday.
University officials said there didn't appear to be significant damage on campus, and dozens of students and locals were staying at a 125-bed shelter in the campus recreation center.
The Browns Ferry nuclear power plant about 30 miles west of Huntsville lost offsite power. The Tennessee Valley Authority-owned plant had to use seven diesel generators to power the plant's three units. The safety systems operated as needed and the emergency event was classified as the lowest of four levels, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission said.
In Huntsville, meteorologists found themselves in the path of severe storms and had to take shelter in a reinforced steel room, turning over monitoring duties to a sister office in Jackson, Miss. Meteorologists saw multiple wall clouds, which sometimes spawn tornadoes, and decided to take cover, but the building wasn't damaged.
"We have to take shelter just like the rest of the people," said meteorologist Chelly Amin, who wasn't at the office at the time but spoke with colleagues about the situation.
In Kemper County, Miss., in the east-central part of the state, sisters Florrie Green and Maxine McDonald, and their sister-in-law Johnnie Green, all died in a mobile home that was destroyed by a storm.
"They were thrown into those pines over there," Mary Green, Johnnie Green's daughter-in-law, said, pointing to a wooded area. "They had to go look for their bodies."
In Choctaw County, Miss., a Louisiana police officer was killed Wednesday morning when a towering sweetgum tree fell onto his tent as he shielded his young daughter with his body. The girl wasn't hurt.
The storms came on the heels of another system that killed 10 people in Arkansas and one in Mississippi earlier this week.
Reeves reported from Tuscaloosa. Associated Press Writers Holbrook Mohr in Choctaw County, Miss.; Anna McFall and John Zenor in Montgomery; Meg Kinnard in Colombia, S.C.; Bill Fuller and Alan Sayre in New Orleans; Dorie Turner in Atlanta; and Bill Poovey in Chattanooga, Tenn., contributed to this report.