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Southern tornadoes leave deadly wake

Damage so widespread, response is expected "to take a very long time."

BY VICKI DESORMIER | February 6, 2008

More than 50 people were killed and hundreds more were injured Tuesday night and Wednesday morning in the worst tornado outbreak in nearly 25 years.

The storms thundered through Arkansas, Tennessee, Kentucky, Mississippi and Alabama, overturning trucks, ripping houses from their foundations, smashing cars, and uprooting trees, leaving many people trapped and waiting for rescue.

Significant damage was reported in at least five areas of Arkansas where weather forecasters said a supercell thunderstorm that stayed on the ground for 2 and half hours Tuesday night spawned a number of tornadoes. Thousands of people were left without power.

Churches and schools were also damaged. According to Sheriff Jay White of Pope County, Arkansas, the Union Grove Baptist Church was destroyed. Emergency officials in Sharp County said the local high school in Highland was severely damaged.

The first wave of storms hit mid-afternoon Tuesday, while voters were still at the polls for the Super Tuesday primary. The storms continued into the night. Arkansas election officials said at least one polling place in Atkins continued to record votes even as the American Red Cross began setting up a shelter in the building.

In Memphis, Tenn., firefighters were called to the Hickory Ridge Mall which was badly damaged. According to Memphis Fire Department spokesman, Lt. Keith Staples, firefighters rescued people trapped in the rubble of a Sears Store.

In Kentucky, Public Information Officer Buddy Rogers had been working for more than 12 straight hours, manning the phones and helping compile figures for the Kentucky Emergency Management Agency (KEMA) when he went outside for a break.

"It's still partly cloudy, but nowhere near like it was when the storms came through," he said.

Rogers said assessment teams would probably spend all of Wednesday moving across the state looking for more survivors before they began the work of assessing the physical damage and opening up the affected areas to relief workers.

"There is such wide-scattered damage across the state that it will take a very long time to do all the assessments," he said.

After the storms hit, he said, initial searches found three dead in Muhlenberg County and four more in Allen County. Because of the widespread damage, he said there could be more deaths, but emergency workers won't know until all assessments are done.

In Tennessee, 24 people were confirmed dead and 150 were hurt late Wednesday morning, but further assessments were underway to look for additional survivors.

Laura McPherson is a public information officer with the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency. She said a large scale search effort has been put into place with several K-9 units and 135 Highway Patrol officers combing damaged areas looking for survivors and those who may have been killed.

"And as soon as the ceiling lifts, they're going to put helicopters up to go up and see what they might be able to tell from the air," she said. The severe thunderstorms that spawned the tornadoes have moved out of the area, but heavy clouds still cling low in the sky making flight difficult and dangerous.

Fatalities were also reported in Shelby, Fayette, Hardin, Macon, Madison, Sumner and Trousdale counties, with 10 of them concentrated in Macon County, she said.

While TEMA has not yet completed their damage assessments, they know the storm caused several other disasters across the state.

More than 25 tractor-trailers were involved in a series of accidents on Interstate 40 west of Jackson, temporarily closed the highway in both directions for most of the night and into Wednesday morning. The storm ruptured an ammonia tank at a bottling plant in Memphis, which no longer poses any threat to those in the area. A broken natural gas line at the Columbia Gulf Transmission Co. in Hartsville spewed flames more than 500 feet in the air and burned throughout the night, but by Wednesday morning, the fire was under control.

The Salvation Army has set up mobile lunch trucks that are moving throughout the damaged areas providing meals for those who are beginning the recovery efforts.

McPherson said the American Red Cross has set up four shelters in and around the state and there are plans for more shelters as the assessment teams give way to recovery groups by Thursday morning.

Lauree Ashcomb, an Alabama Emergency Management Agency public information officer, said a pair of assessment teams were scouring areas in Lawrence and Walker counties. Figures stand at 11 houses, including five mobile homes, destroyed and four people who were transported to area hospitals for treatment of their injuries.

"We don't think we had any more than that, but we don't know until the teams are done with their assessments," she said. "There are lots of homes with damage and many people with minor injuries who didn't require treatment at the hospital."

In Mississippi, the damage was limited to a long narrow strip where two tornadoes touched down several times in the northern part of the state. In Lafayette County, near Oxford, there was one reported injury, several homes destroyed and some industrial damage to a pair of businesses. In DeSoto County, there was widespread damage reported including damage to a shopping mall, to the Memphis (TN) Airport, which is right on the state border, and to the FedEx facility at that airport.

Lisa Coleman, the director for the Oxford Service Center of the Salvation Army, reported her organization had set up a command post in the northern areas and that a canteen had been sent to Tupelo to feed affected people. A Red Cross shelter in Oxford reported seven people at their shelter there.

The severe weather will continue on Wednesday and Thursday as a cold front pushes north and east. While tornadoes are a possibility in central and north Georgia, high winds are predicted for the western portions of the Carolinas with winds expected to be between 35 and 45 miles per hour in the region.

According to Jeff Masters of The Weather Underground, Tuesday's tornado outbreak was the worst in almost a quarter of a century. In 1985, tornadoes struck Pennsylvania and Ohio, taking some 88 lives. He said it is unusual for tornadoes to form so early in the year and that the warm weather that has settled over much of the south, which collided with a cold front, produced the volatile weather.

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