Dozens killed as tornadoes lay waste to southern US

Federal United States authorities rushed aid to southern states on Monday after powerful tornadoes cut a path through Oklahoma, Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama and North Carolina, before petering out in Virginia—killing 44 people and reducing entire towns to rubble along the way.

Distraught residents and business owners were trying to piece their lives back together after a weekend of disaster, particularly for worst-hit North Carolina, where 22 people died.

“There are individual assistance teams going out to the counties that have had tornado damage,” emergency management spokeswoman Patty McQuillan said.

More than 30 000 homes and business were still without power in the state, where stricken families were separating out material and vegetative debris and dragging it to the nearest roadside to be picked up.

“For those people who have insurance, they will be taken care of through their insurance companies,” McQuillan said. “For those people with no insurance, they should take photos of the damage and go ahead and start their clean-up.

“If the teams find 25 or more businesses in a particular county with uninsured losses that are more than 40% damaged, then the state will write a letter to the president asking for federal assistance.”

The tragedy began late Thursday in Oklahoma, where a giant twister almost flattened the small town of Tushka—population 350—tearing up most of its homes and businesses and killing two elderly residents.

The storm system strengthened and expanded on Friday, whipping up hundreds more reported tornadoes that barreled through Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama and North Carolina, before petering out in Virginia on Saturday night.

“It’s the most significant damage by a tornado since the early 1980s,” North Carolina Governor Beverly Perdue told reporters in Raleigh on Sunday.

Among seven people killed in Alabama were a mother and her two children sheltering inside their mobile home when it was thrown about 150m into the woods, landing on its roof.

Seven others died in Arkansas, five in Virginia, and one in Mississippi.

“There’s no long-term idea of the economic damage at this point, people are still picking up pieces,” Virginia emergency management spokeswoman Laura Southard said.

“For the school that is heavily damaged they are trying to figure out how to complete the school year, they are not going to be able to return to that building. Many people are not able to return to their homes.”

Hundreds of survivors who lost their homes were staying with relatives until they could get themselves up and running again.

Falling trees snapped power lines and came crashing down on cars and houses, killing occupants and causing widespread damage.
Witnesses described hailstones the size of grapefruit.

Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell traveled to the southeastern county of Gloucester on Monday, where three people died and others were injured when a tornado touched down over a 5km path.

“He spoke with first responders and local officials about what they’re doing in those areas to try to get back to normal, which is going to take a while, and expressed his sympathy for what had happened,” said Southard.

AccuWeather.com said a total of 267 tornadoes had been reported in 15 states over the three-day period, making it one of the largest tornado outbreaks in US history.

Experts said there had been three main contributory factors: a powerful jet stream, abundant moisture surging in from the Gulf of Mexico and a strong cold front plowing across the South.

“The strong La Nina pattern means that tremendous contrasts in air masses, with cool and dry air to the north and warm and steamy air to the south, are occurring over the Mississippi Valley. This puts many highly populated areas in the path of dangerous severe weather,” said meteorologist Henry Margusity.

The weekend storms were the deadliest in the United States since tornadoes killed 57 people in southern and central states in February 2008.—Sapa-AFP

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