Tornadoes and violent storms tore through seven southern states, killing at least 313 people and causing billions of dollars of damage in one of the deadliest swarms of twisters in US history.
US President Barack Obama described the loss of life as “heartbreaking” and called the damage to homes and businesses “nothing short of catastrophic.”
He promised strong federal support for rebuilding and planned to view the damage yesterday.
Over several days this week, the powerful tornadoes — more than 160 reported in total — combined with storms to cut a swath of destruction heading west to east. It was the worst US natural disaster since Hurricane Katrina in 2005, which killed up to 1,800 people.
In some areas, whole neighborhoods were flattened, cars flipped over and trees and power lines felled, leaving tangled wreckage.
While rescue officials searched for survivors, some who sheltered in bathtubs, closets and basements told of miraculous escapes.
“I made it. I got in a closet, put a pillow over my face and held on for dear life because it started sucking me up,” said Angela Smith of Tuscaloosa, Alabama, one of the worst-hit cities.
In Birmingham, Alabama, which was also hard hit, Police Chief A.C. Roper said rescue workers sifted through rubble “hand to hand” on Thursday to pull people from destroyed homes.
“We even rescued two babies, one that was trapped in a crib when the house fell down on top of the baby,” Roper said in an interview on PBS NewsHour.
Tornadoes are a regular feature of life in the US south and midwest, but they are rarely so devastating.
Wednesday was the deadliest day of tornadoes in the US since 310 people lost their lives on April 3, 1974.
Given the apparent destruction, insurance experts were wary of estimating damage costs, but believed they would run into the billions of dollars, with the worst impact concentrated in Tuscaloosa and Birmingham.
“In terms of the ground-up damage and quite possibly the insured damage, this event will be of historic proportions,” said Jose Miranda, an executive with the catastrophe risk modeling firm EQECAT.
“I think this is going to rank up as one of the worst tornado outbreaks in US history,” US Federal Emergency Management Agency director Craig Fugate said.
Fugate spoke in an interview with CNN from Alabama, where his agency said the tornadoes killed at least 210 people.
There were still unconfirmed reports late on Thursday of “entire towns flattened” in northern parts of the state, Fugate said.
“We’re still trying to get people through rescues and locate the missing,” he said.
The 1.6km-wide monster twister that tore on Wednesday through Tuscaloosa, home to the University of Alabama, may have been the biggest ever to hit the state, AccuWeather.com meteorologist Josh Nagelberg said.
Obama was to visit Alabama yesterday to see the damage and meet the governor. He declared a state of emergency for Alabama and ordered federal aid.
“I want every American who has been affected by this disaster to know that the federal government will do everything we can to help you recover, and we will stand with you as you rebuild,” Obama said at the White House.