PLEASANT GROVE, Ala. -- Firefighters searched one splintered pile after another for survivors yesterday, combing the remains of houses and neighborhoods pulverized by the nation's deadliest tornado outbreak in almost four decades. At least 290 people were killed across six states, more than two-thirds of them in Alabama, where large cities bore the half-mile-wide scars the twisters left behind.
The death toll from Wednesday's storms seems out of a bygone era, before Doppler radar and pinpoint satellite forecasts were around to warn communities of severe weather. Residents were told up to 24 minutes ahead of time that the tornadoes were coming, but they were just too wide, too powerful and too locked on to populated areas to avoid a horrifying body count.
"These were the most intense super-cell thunderstorms that I think anybody who was out there forecasting has ever seen," said meteorologist Greg Carbin at the National Weather Service's Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Okla. "If you experienced a direct hit from one of these, you'd have to be in a reinforced room, storm shelter or underground" to survive.
The storms seemed to hug the interstate highways as they barreled along like runaway trucks, obliterating neighborhoods or even entire towns from Tuscaloosa, Ala., to Bristol, Va. One family rode out the disaster in the basement of a funeral home, another by huddling in a tanning bed.
In Concord, Ala., a small town outside Birmingham that was ravaged by a tornado, Randy Guyton's family got a phone call from a friend warning them to take cover. They rushed to the basement garage, piled into a Honda Ridgeline and listened to the roar as the twister devoured the house in seconds. Afterward, they saw daylight through the shards of their home and scrambled out.
"The whole house caved in on top of that car," he said. "Other than my boy screaming to the Lord to save us, being in that car is what saved us."
Son Justin, 22, remembers the dingy white cloud moving quickly toward the house. "To me it sounded like destruction," he said. "It was a mean, mean roar. It was awful."
At least three people died in a Pleasant Grove subdivision southwest of Birmingham, where residents trickled back yesterday to survey the damage.
Greg Harrison's neighborhood was somehow unscathed, but he remains haunted by the wind, thunder and lightning as they built to a crescendo, then suddenly stopped. "Sick is what I feel," he said. "This is what you see in Oklahoma and Kansas. Not here. Not in the South."
President Barack Obama said he would travel to Alabama today to view storm damage and meet Gov. Robert Bentley and affected families. As many as a million homes and businesses there were without power, and Bentley said 2,000 National Guard troops had been activated to help. The governors of Mississippi and Georgia also issued emergency declarations for parts of their states.
Some of the worst damage was in Tuscaloosa, a city of 83,000 that is home to the University of Alabama. A tower-mounted news camera there captured images of an astonishingly thick, powerful tornado flinging debris as it leveled neighborhoods.
That twister and others Wednesday were several times more severe than a typical tornado, which is hundreds of yards wide, has winds around 100 mph and stays on the ground for a few miles, said research meteorologist Harold Brooks at the Storm Prediction Center.