Alabama took the most brutal pounding, the state scarred by a monster funnel cloud that crossed the state on a track that struck Tuscaloosa head-on and chewed through the Birmingham suburbs before exiting into Georgia.
As many as 1 million homes and businesses in Alabama lost power, and Bentley activated 2,000 National Guard troops to help in the recovery effort.
The National Weather Service on Friday upgraded the severity of a tornado that struck the small town of Smithville (population about 860) in northeastern Mississippi on Wednesday afternoon, killing 14 people and injuring 40. The half-mile-wide twister, which stayed on the ground for nearly three miles, packed peak winds of 205 mph, making it a rare category EF-5 tornado, the weather service said.
The rating on the service’s Enhanced Fujita Scale is the highest indicator of wind speed and related damage. The Smithville tornado, the most powerful to hit Mississippi since 1966, destroyed or damaged dozens of homes and businesses, including the post office and police station, and wrecked the town’s water system. Most trees were snapped or twisted, and one 1965 Chevy pickup that was parked in front of a destroyed home has not been found, the weather service said.
During a visit to Smithville, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour (R) expressed fears that the state’s death toll may rise.
“We know there is a tremendous amount of debris” that could be covering additional bodies, he told reporters. He said there was also “some risk that the waterways that surround this area could possibly contain human remains.”
Even as survivors combed the wreckage of their homes for recoverable belongings, search-and-rescue crews continued Friday morning to look for victims of the disaster.
In Virginia, rescuers rushed a survivor to a hospital after pulling the person out of rubble Friday morning in Washington County in the southwestern part of the state, emergency officials said. The rescue came a day after an EF-3 tornado roared through the area with winds up to 165 mph.
In Tuscaloosa, home to the University of Alabama, a team with a cadaver-sniffing dog searched the wreckage of an apartment complex reduced to rubble by the tornado.
Maddox, the Tuscaloosa mayor, said entire neighborhoods were wiped off the map. The city of more than 80,000 lost its emergency management agency and one of its fire stations, Maddox said. In addition, most of its garbage and recycling trucks were damaged or destroyed, and two major water tanks were out of water, he said.
“This place looks like a war zone,” Jackie Wuska Hurt, director of development for the honors college at the University of Alabama, wrote in an e-mail Thursday. “Folks looked like refugees walking single file with suitcases or grocery carts of their belongings down the sidewalks of University Boulevard.”