By Michael Muskal and Matt Pearce, Los Angeles Times
As a deadly storm system continued its eastward trek Tuesday, the South began tallying its losses from a tornado outbreak that killed at least 34 people in a swath from Arkansas, Oklahoma and Iowa to Mississippi, Alabama and Tennessee.
The harsh weather carved a wound from the Midwest and eastward, bringing severe thunderstorms, fierce winds and large hail, with the latest tornadoes damaging homes in North Carolina on Tuesday evening. Significant portions of Alabama and Mississippi remained under tornado watch.
Hundreds of injuries have been reported since Sunday as homes and buildings toppled, mobile homes were tossed like toys and heavy vehicles twisted in the wind.
This week’s tornadoes occurred near the anniversary of a 2011 outbreak that left more than 350 people dead across the South. In Alabama, more than 250 people died April 27, 2011, from more than 60 twisters.
This year’s tornado season had a much less severe start but it was still deadly. Dozens of tornadoes have touched down in recent days, with the majority scouring central Mississippi and northern Alabama on Monday.
Arkansas, especially in the Little Rock-area towns of Vilonia and Mayflower, was especially hard hit Sunday with 15 deaths in three counties. A sequence of at least two tornadoes scoured a nearly straight line of damage through the central part of the state, bringing winds in excess of 136 mph and carving a track more than half a mile wide in places.
Speaking in Washington on Tuesday, Arkansas Republican Rep. Steve Womack said: “The state’s in a state of shock right now.” Womack, whose district northwest of Little Rock was spared much of the damage, added: “These will try your souls.”
The dangerous storms moved through Mississippi, where tornadoes began to strike Monday afternoon through the evening. Tupelo, a community of about 35,000 people in northeastern Mississippi, was hard hit and every building in a two-block area was damaged, officials told television reporters.
Officials said nine people died in Mississippi’s Winston County, where Louisville is the county seat, with about 6,600 people. An apparent EF-4 tornado with winds stronger than 160 mph swept the area, severely damaging a medical center and a nursing home.
As of Tuesday, the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency confirmed at least 12 deaths across the state.
Ruth Bennett, 53, died saving a child at her Ruth’s Child Care Center when the tornado hit Louisville. A firefighter who came upon her body gently pulled the toddler from her arms, according to The Associated Press.
“It makes you just take a breath now,” said next-door neighbor Kenneth Billingsley, who witnessed the scene at what was left of the center. “It makes you pay attention to life.”
Bennett’s niece, Tanisha Lockett, said she had worked at Ruth’s Child Care since it opened seven years ago. She said that all but the one child had been picked up before the storm. The 4-year-old, whose name was not released, was taken to a Jackson hospital.
“We’re just trying to keep a smile on our faces,” said Jackie Ivy, an employee who was helping with the cleanup Tuesday. “I cried all last night.”
Mississippi Republican state Sen. Giles Ward huddled in a bathroom with his wife, four other family members and their dog Monday as a tornado destroyed his two-story brick house and flipped his son-in-law’s SUV upside-down onto the patio in Louisville.
“For about 30 seconds, it was unbelievable,” Ward told reporters. “It’s about as awful as anything we’ve gone through.”
Another person died in Mississippi when her car either hydroplaned or was blown off a road during the storm in Verona, south of Tupelo.
Three weather-related deaths were confirmed in Alabama, with 19 counties reporting storm damage. One of those tornadoes destroyed the Kimberly Church of God in Kimberly, Ala. Pastor Stan Cooke was using the church as a community shelter, keeping about 25 people safe underground.
“I cried. I cried,” Cooke said to television reporters. “The church is not the people; the people are the church.”
In southern Tennessee, two people were killed in a home when a suspected tornado hit Monday night, Lincoln County Emergency Management Director Mike Hall told The Associated Press. The winds destroyed several other homes as well as a middle school in the county that borders Alabama, Hall said.
The storm even sent the staff at a TV news station running for cover. Chief meteorologist Matt Laubhan at NBC affiliate WTVA-TV in Tupelo, Miss., was reporting live on the air about 3 p.m. when he realized that the twister was approaching. He warned viewers and his 35 co-workers to get to safety.
“This is a tornado ripping through the city of Tupelo as we speak. And this could be deadly,” he said in a video widely tweeted and broadcast on YouTube.
Moments later he added, “A damaging tornado. On the ground. Right now.”
“Basement, now!” he yelled to the staff before disappearing off camera.
AFP Photo/Tasos Katopodis