By Michael Muskal, Los Angeles Times
After leaving a trail of death and destruction across at least six states, a series of violent storms that spawned dozens of tornadoes continued to move through the South on Tuesday morning.
It was the third day of deadly weather to rip from the Midwest through the eastern portion of the nation, bringing severe thunderstorms, fierce winds and large hail. In all, at least 30 deaths have been reported since Sunday in a swath from Oklahoma and Iowa to Alabama and including Arkansas, Mississippi and Tennessee. Hundreds of injuries have been reported as homes and buildings toppled, mobile homes were tossed like confetti and heavy vehicles twisted in the wind.
More than 70 million people live in the area identified by the National Weather Service, but the number in the prime danger zones were about a fifth of that.
“The NWS Storm Prediction Center is forecasting a risk of severe weather Tuesday afternoon and into Tuesday from the Great Lakes southward to the central and eastern Gulf Coast and eastward to the Carolinas and Virginia,” the National Weather Service warned. “The greatest risk is from eastern Mississippi to central Alabama, where a Moderate Risk is in place. Several tornadoes, large hail and straight line damaging winds are likely.”
This week’s tornadoes come near the anniversary of the 2011 outbreak that left more than 350 people dead across the South over several days beginning on April 25 during the annual tornado season. More than 250 people died in Alabama alone on April 27, 2011, when more than 60 tornadoes crisscrossed the state.
This year’s tornado season has been much less severe but still deadly for some. Hundreds of tornadoes have touched down in recent days, including 13 reported in Alabama in the last 24 hours.
Arkansas — especially in Vilonia and Mayflower — was especially hard hit on Sunday, with 15 deaths in three counties.
“The state’s in a state of shock right now,” Republican Rep. Steve Womack, whose Arkansas district northwest of Little Rock was spared much of the damage, said in Washington on Tuesday. “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 in northeastern Mississippi, was hard hit and every building in a two-block area was damaged, officials told television reporters.
Officials said seven people died in Mississippi’s Winston County, where Louisville is the county seat, with about 6,600 people. Another person died in Mississippi when her car either hydroplaned or was blown off a road during the storm in Verona, south of Tupelo. As of Tuesday morning, Mississippi Emergency Management confirmed at least nine deaths across the state.
In 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.”
Two weather-related deaths were confirmed in Alabama. 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. NBC affiliate WTVA-TV chief meteorologist Matt Laubhan in Tupelo, Miss., was reporting live on the air at around 3 p.m. when he realized the twister was approaching. He warned not only viewers but 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.”
The video showed Laubhan peeking in from the side to see if he was still live on the air before yelling to staff off-camera to get down in the basement.
“Basement, now!” he yelled, before disappearing off camera.
Brad Vest/The Commercial Appeal/MCT