Tornadoes shatter southern US states

The death toll from a series of tornadoes that swept the southern United States was rising on Wednesday night while rescuers continued to sift the rubble of flattened buildings. At least 54 people were killed and hundreds more injured, many critically, as the deadliest twisters for more than 20 years struck before dawn and carved a path of devastation through eight states.

Meteorologists recorded 67 tornadoes, from Arkansas to Georgia. The worst-hit state was Tennessee, where 30 people died, some victims of an explosion at a natural-gas distribution station in Hartsville that shot flames more than 150m in the air.

The roofs of two dormitories at Union University, Jackson, were destroyed, trapping eight and injuring 51, as more than 1 000 students slept below, while in Shelby three people seeking shelter in a warehouse were killed when the roof fell on them.

National Guard troops were called out to assist the rescue in many states, plucking people from swollen rivers and moving from house to house to free trapped residents. Fallen power lines and debris blocking roads hampered much of the rescue work.

”The damage is massive and widespread,” said Mike Beebe, the Governor of Arkansas, where 13 deaths were reported. ”We’ve had reports from people who credit the warnings for saving their lives and who were able to take cover. But, even when you get a warning, it might not do you much good. When it’s compounded by darkness, that makes it much more difficult.”

The death toll was the highest from tornadoes in the US since May 1985 when more than 40 twisters touched down in Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York, killing 88 people.

Bill McCaul, a meteorologist with Nasa’s global hydrology and climate centre, said of this week’s storms: ”This is substantial and one of the worst outbreaks we’ve seen in recent years. The problem with these winter tornadoes in the south-eastern US is that they move at 50mph to 60mph [about 80km/h to 96km/h] and often come under the cover of darkness. There’s not much time to get out of the way and if you are asleep you may not get word.”

In Arkansas, many of the houses in the small town of Atkins, 80km north of Little Rock, were destroyed.

Victims included an 11-year-old girl and her parents when their home took ”a direct hit”, according to Leonard Krout, coroner for Pope county. ”Neighbours and friends who were there said, ‘there used to be a home there’,” he said.

Three deaths were reported in Sumner county, Tennessee, including a couple discovered outside the ruins of their house, and a young mother found in a riverbed whose baby was rescued alive in the street just metres away. A further seven died in Kentucky and four in Alabama.

President George Bush expressed his sympathies for the victims. ”We hold up those who have suffered in our prayers,” he said, promising that the Federal Emergency Management Agency was standing by to help with recovery efforts.

The band of tornadoes weakened slightly as it moved east towards Georgia and the Florida panhandle on Wednesday night, threatening to delay Thursday’s scheduled launch of the space shuttle Atlantis from Cape Canaveral.

The US’s deadliest tornadoes occurred in March 1925, leaving 695 people dead and more than 2 000 injured in Missouri, Illinois and Indiana, said the Vermont-based Tornado Project. — Â

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